During Joe Biden’s campaign, and then when he was elected president, the most significant concern of Israel and many of its supporters was Biden’s desire to return to the nuclear deal with Iran. The other signatories will pressure Biden to rejoin the agreement; however, he laid out stringent requirements Iran must meet. Moreover, he has made clear he is not interested in the same deal; he wants a stronger one.
Specifically, he wants to return to negotiations “to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions” while making “an unshakeable commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” He will rejoin the agreement “if Iran returns to strict compliance” and “push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities.” He said his administration would impose “targeted sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile program” and promised “ironclad support for Israel.”
In an interview with Tom Friedman, Biden said, “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.” He added, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.” He also said the U.S. could snap back sanctions if necessary, but that was President Barack Obama’s promise as well, and the other signatories refused to implement them after Iran violated the agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt about his government’s position. “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. In the past, however, before President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he had said he favored the negotiation of a better deal.
The Gulf states that objected to the deal vehemently oppose the United States reversing Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and rejoining the agreement. Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Intelligence and chairman of the Saudi King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said, “Mr. President-elect, do not repeat the mistakes and shortcomings of the first deal. Any non-comprehensive deal will not achieve lasting peace and security in our region.” He added, “Iranian disruptive regional behavior in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, by attacking, directly and indirectly, the oil installations, is as much of a threat as is its nuclear program.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has said the Gulf states expect to be consulted before any new agreement is negotiated. “I think we’ve seen as a result of the after-effects of the JCPOA that not involving the regional countries results in a buildup of mistrust and neglect of the issues of real concern and of real effect on regional security.”
The U.K., France, and Germany are anxious for the U.S. to rejoin the deal so they can pursue commercial interests in Iran. They, too, realize there is no going back to the original agreement and that a new one must be negotiated that addresses Iran’s missile development, sponsorship of terror, and malign activities in the region. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for example, said:
He added, “The decisive factor will be whether the U.S. relaxes the economic sanctions against Iran.”
The Iranians, meanwhile, have said they will not change their policy and are demanding the United States pay them as much as $200 billion to compensate for the economic losses caused by sanctions. “We once tried the path of having the sanctions lifted and negotiated several years, but this got us nowhere,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “They interfere in regional affairs; they tell us not to intervene. And while Britain and France have nuclear missiles, they tell us not to have missiles. What does it have to do with you? You should first correct yourselves.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said he is not opposed to renewed talks but will not “renegotiate what we already negotiated.”
Analysts believe it will be difficult to renegotiate the agreement for several other reasons. Iran, for example, is likely to demand the end of sanctions related to human rights violations, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorism, in addition to lifting those associated with the nuclear program. At a minimum, Iran expects to be allowed to sell its oil. Meanwhile, the U.S. wants to include elements in a new deal, such as Iran’s missile program, which are red lines for the Iranians.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made clear he would not agree to any expansion of the JCPOA to cover the malign activities left out of the agreement. “The missiles program and regional issues have nothing to do with the nuclear issue,” Rouhani said.
Some Iranians now don’t trust the U.S. to stick to any new agreement. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, also has a strong disincentive not to offer any compromises because he was running for reelection in June 2021, and hardliners would expect him to deliver serious U.S. concessions to win their support.
According to Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been too many breaches to return to the original agreement. “I cannot imagine that they are going simply to say, ‘We are back to square one’ because square one is no longer there,” he said.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken said on February 16, 2021, “If Iran returns to compliance and we do the same, we need to work on an agreement that's longer and stronger than the original one. And we also need to engage other issues that were not part of the original negotiation that are deeply problematic for us and for other countries around the world: Iran's ballistic missile program, its destabilizing actions in country after country. All of that needs to be engaged.” He added, “The first step would be Iran returning to compliance. And President Biden has been clear that if they do, we would do the same. The path to diplomacy is open right now. Iran is still a ways away from being in compliance. So we'll have to see what it does.”
Blinken claimed the JCPOA “was very effective in cutting off all of the pathways that Iran then had to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. And we know that that agreement was working.”
The evidence suggests otherwise, and it is difficult to see how he can say Iran’s pathways to a bomb were cut off and declare they are closer now to a bomb in the same breath. First, they were not supposed to be able to violate the deal with impunity as they have. Snapback sanctions were supposed to be applied, but the Europeans rejected them. Second, because the JCPOA allowed them to keep their centrifuges rather than destroy them, they have been able to enrich uranium to a higher purity level. Third, the deal’s sunset clauses allow Iran to pursue a bomb unhindered, with Obama admitting the breakout time would be reduced to almost zero within 15 years of signing it.
Meanwhile, Khamenei set his conditions for returning to compliance on February 7, 2021: “If they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments, America should lift the sanctions entirely, in practice not in words. Then we verify it and see if sanctions are properly lifted before we return to the JCPOA’s commitments...This is the Islamic Republic’s irrevocable and definitive policy, and a matter of consensus between the country’s officials.”
After threatening to prevent any inspections, Iran softened its position in what was viewed as a response to President Biden’s announcement of plans to resume diplomatic negotiations. Rafael Grossi, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general, said his inspectors would have “less access,” however, they could still monitor key production sites where Iran has declared that it is making nuclear material. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, however, inspectors could not demand access to sites where they suspect nuclear activity may have taken place and would be blocked from obtaining footage from security cameras that keep some of the areas under surveillance.
Even as Iran continued to violate the JCPOA, the Biden administration made its first concessions – announcing the intention to resume talks and rescinding the Trump administration’s imposition of snapback sanctions. The State Department also eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats coming to the United Nations.
In what some in the region were interpreting initially as a sign of weakness, Secretary of State Blinken said the U.S. was “outraged” but failed to respond to a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq that killed a contractor and wounded nine others, including a member of the military that was likely launched by an Iranian-supported militia.
Michael Knights told the Washington Post that Biden’s team did not want to acknowledge the Iranian role in the attack because it would complicate their interest in negotiations. “It’s about keeping the conditions there for a nuclear deal,” said Knights. “You don’t negotiate with people who are nudge, nudge, wink, wink, trying to kill you at the same time.”
Biden subsequently ordered a military strike on targets in Syria near the Iraqi border used by an Iranian-backed militia. The president said he was sending a message to Iran, “You can’t act with impunity – be careful.”
A few days later, Iran rejected an offer to begin negotiations with the United States.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 10, 2021, Blinken said the administration was not going to make any concessions to Iran to rejoin the nuclear deal. The administration insists that Iran return to full compliance with the agreement and hopes to use that as a “platform” for negotiating a “longer and stronger” deal.
“We have fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a whole series of things, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it is a ballistic missile program,” said Blinken. “An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the threshold capacity to have one is an Iran that is likely to act with even greater impunity when it comes to those things.”
Blinken assured the committee the administration would consult on its Iran policy. “Congress is the first stop,” he said, “but also allies, partners, including allies and partners in the region, who have their own concerns and own interests at stake.” Blinken said the U.S. has already had discussions with China, Russia, and the European signatories to the Iran deal.
Meanwhile, 140 members of the House, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, sent a letter to Blinken insisting that any agreements with Iranaddress the full range of threats that Iran poses to the region.
State Department Iran envoy Rob Malley told Axios that the U.S. and Israel want to avoid a repetition of the public confrontation over Iran during the Obama administration. “We don’t always agree, but the talks are extremely open and positive. While we may have different interpretations and views as to what happened in 2015–2016, neither of us wishes to repeat it," Malley said.
Toward that end, the Biden administration plans to consult with Israel, and officials agreed to a “no surprises policy.”
Biden met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on June 28, 2021. According to the White House, “The President emphasized that under his administration, Iran will never get a nuclear weapon. He also assured President Rivlin that the United States remains determined to counter Iran’s malign activity and support for terrorist proxies, which have destabilizing consequences for the region.”
Critics of the nuclear agreement have feared the Biden administration would capitulate to Iranian demands to ease sanctions and agree to return to the JCPOA without either Iranian concessions or any commitment to renegotiate a more robust agreement. The first indication the administration may be heading in that direction occurred during a meeting of the P5+1 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany.) minus the United States in early April. They agreed to convene a meeting in Vienna on April 6, 2021, to discuss bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance.
A U.S. official said intermediaries would seek an agreement on synchronizing steps to return to their commitments, including lifting economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, said no negotiations are required; the U.S. must unilaterally return to the deal and end all sanctions.
During the Vienna talks, the United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries to establish a working group to discuss the lifting of sanctions imposed by President Trump. A second working group will focus on how to get Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the news by noting that “history has taught us that agreements like this with extremist regimes are worth as much as garlic peel.” He also warned the negotiators that Israel would not be bound by “an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction.”
He added, “Today we have a state, we have the power to defend ourselves and we have the natural and full right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies.”
David Pollock of the Washington Institute observed that the good news is that “unlike the Obama administration that most of them were previously part of,” Biden’s team “seems focused almost as much on Iran’s non-nuclear activities as on its nuclear ones.” He said the bad news is “their actual policy toward those non-nuclear challenges are mostly carrots with few sticks. “The result, no doubt unwittingly, is that the U.S. is emboldening and empowering Iran on the Mideast regional level, rather than containing it.”
Former Lt.-Gen. H.R. McMaster told the Jerusalem Post Iran is focused on its election scheduled for June 2021 and the post-Khamenei period and would not make any new agreements until a president is elected. He also said the Biden administration could stop the Chinese or inhibit their economic relations with Iran by imposing “secondary sanctions on Chinese banks.”
Though initially opposed to Trump’s decision to leave the deal, he now believes it is a mistake to return to the agreement. He said, adding a few years to the restrictions that expire in 2025 and 2030 would not be sufficient. In his book Battlegrounds, he also noted the JCPOA’s verification regime was a farce because “before the ink was dry, Iran was announcing which inspections it would not allow.”
He warned the U.S. should not “underestimate the ideology of the revolution, of Iran’s forward defense strategy and desire to restore Iran as an empire.”
Meanwhile, following the sabotage of Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility, which has been widely attributed to Israel, Iran announced it would enrich uranium to 60%. Blinken said the move was “provocative” and “calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard [to] the nuclear talks” in Vienna. America’s European partners also criticized Iran for its “regrettable” decision. They said it had no “credible” civilian use, referring to Iran’s frequent claim its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
To counter concerns the administration is contemplating easing sanctions before Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East, told Jewish American leaders on April 23, 2021, “Until we get somewhere and until we have a firm commitment, and it’s very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is going to be capped, the problematic aspects reversed and back in a box, we are not going to take any of the pressure off.” He said the administration is “not going to pay anything upfront just to get a process going. We have to see from the Iranians a fundamental commitment and agreement to put their nuclear program back in a box that we can fully inspect and observe.”
McGurk added: “We have worked with the Israelis every day in the security realm, in terms of their freedom of action - protecting themselves - as something fundamental to us... There is no disagreement on where we want to go - Iran can never get a nuclear weapon, period. There’s some disagreement about the kind of tactics you might use to get there. But we agree on a lot more than we disagree.”
Officials from both countries have had several discussions regarding Iran. During a visit in April 2021, Mossad director Yossi Cohen met with the president and was reportedly told the United States was far from reaching an agreement with Iran to return to the JCPOA.
Negotiations in Vienna reportedly stalled over, among other issues, the Iranian insistence that the U.S. eliminate all sanctions and disagreement over what will happen to the newer, more sophisticated centrifuges Iran has installed to enrich uranium. The failure to require that Iran destroy all centrifuges and not install new ones was a significant problem with the JCPOA. It allowed Iran to continue to enrich uranium and increase the purity level closer to weapons grade.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) gave Congress the right to review any nuclear agreement. Because the deal was reviewed, the administration will argue Congress does not have a say if Biden rejoins the existing agreement. If a new deal is negotiated, INARA would be triggered. A simple majority in both houses can block the deal, but a 2/3 majority in each House is required to override a presidential veto (opponents did not have enough votes in 2015).
Some Republicans seek to pass legislation requiring the president to submit any Iran nuclear agreement — including rejoining the 2015 deal — for Senate consideration as a treaty rather than as an executive agreement as occurred under Obama. Because the JCPOA was not a treaty, President Trump could revoke the executive order without congressional approval. The law is unsettled as to whether a president can unilaterally terminate a treaty.
If a new agreement were a treaty, it would require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, which also has the power to attach conditions or reservations to the treaty. Given the 50-50 partisan split, it would likely require the president to negotiate a far stronger agreement than the JCPOA to be ratified.
Several other pieces of legislation related to Iran have been introduced but have minimal support and are not likely to come to a vote.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on June 7, 2021, Blinken said, “We’re not even at the stage of returning to ‘compliance for compliance,’” adding, “It remains unclear if Iran is willing and prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance” with the JCPOA.
Signaling the administration is not interested in expanding the nuclear agreement to include issues left out of the JCPOA, Blinken said the priority was Iran’s nuclear program because “each and every one [of Iran’s malign activities] would be even worse if Iran had a nuclear weapon or was on the threshold of being able to have one.”
He seemed to indicate those issues, and lengthening the terms of the agreement, would only be discussed after a return to the deal, which would serve “as a platform both to look at whether the agreement itself can be lengthened and, if necessary, strengthened and also to capture these other issues.”
Meanwhile, nuclear weapons expert David Albright published a book in 2021 that revealed new details about Iran’s pursuit of a bomb that was discovered in the archive stolen by Israel. In Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons, Albright said the archive revealed critical facts that were previously unknown. These include that Iran knew much more about making nuclear weapons and could make them quicker, that Iran had almost two dozen sites related to its nuclear weapons program and that the IAEA had visited only three, that Iran had designed a weapon, and that Iran can or is close to having the capability to arm a medium-range missile with a nuclear warhead, and that it continued its program after the signing the JCPOA.
In what was viewed as an effort to encourage Iranian cooperation in nuclear talks in Vienna, the U.S. Treasury Department repealed sanctions on former senior National Iranian Oil Co. officials and several companies involved in shipping and trading petrochemical products on June 10, 2021. The administration denied there was any connection to the negotiations. “These actions demonstrate our commitment to lifting sanctions in the event of a change in status or behavior by sanctioned persons,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement accompanying the notice of the action.
Nevertheless, opponents of the nuclear deal were critical. “Lifting sanctions during negotiations shows weakness to Iran and tells Tehran to continue its nefarious activities, including nuclear extortion and sending conventional arms to U.S. adversaries,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former top national security adviser to President Trump. Likewise, Senator Ted Cruz criticized the move to dismantle sanctions “before even the pretense of a deal.”
Iranian sources claimed Biden negotiators had agreed to lift all sanctions imposed by President Trump, including those related to insurance, oil, and shipping. Officials in the administration did not directly deny the claim; instead, they only said negotiations were continuing. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there was still “a fair distance to travel” in the talks, including the lifting of sanctions.
Still, in early June 2021, the administration unfroze Iranian money in a Korean bank that had been frozen by U.S. sanctions to allow Iran to pay $16.2 million in delinquent dues owed to the United Nations, which had suspended its voting rights at the world body.
Meanwhile, on June 22, 2021, the Justice Department seized 33 of Iran’s state-linked news website domains, which it said were “disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.”
In June 2021, Iran elected a new president with close ties to Khamenei. Ebrahim Raisi wasted no time rejecting the administration's position that a future agreement should cover Iran’s regional malign activities or ballistic missile development. In his first news conference, Raisi said, “regional issues and missiles are not negotiable.” He expressed an interest in restoring the JCPOA, but only after all sanctions were removed. “We believe that the oppressive sanctions must be lifted and no effort should be spared,” he said.
Before his election, Raisi was the head of the judiciary. Early in his legal career, he was a member of one of the “death commissions” accused of killing as many as 5,000 prisoners in 1988 on orders from Ayatollah Khomeini. Witnesses told The Times of London that “as a young prosecutor during the 1980s, Raisi presided over beatings, stonings, and rape, as well as ordering the mass executions of prisoners by hanging or throwing them off cliffs.”
The United States imposed sanctions on Raisi in 2019 over his human rights record, which included “administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”
The sanctions could complicate U.S. relations with Iran as they prohibit dealings with him.
Iran indicated it would not make any decisions before Raisi was sworn in on August 5. Even then, the ultimate decision of whether or not to reenter the JCPOA and under what conditions will be made by Ayatollah Khameini.
Meanwhile, Iran continued to engage in activities that angered the United States and its allies:
- Iran-backed militias in Iraq launched several attacks on U.S. bases.
- The IAEA reported additional violations of the JCPOA.
- Iranian intelligence officials were indicted on kidnapping conspiracy charges for allegedly plotting to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist and human rights activist from New York City, for rendition to Iran because of her efforts to mobilize public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes to the regime’s laws and practices.
In April 2021, the State Department announced that U.S. and coalition forces “has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq.” The United States at that time had only 2,500 troops in the country. President Obama's withdrawal of U.S. forces reduced Iranian fears of an American attack and allowed Iran to strengthen its position in Iraq. Critics expressed concern a force reduction by Biden would have a similar impact.
Biden showed that he was still prepared to take military action after Iranian-backed militias used drones to attack Iraqi bases used by the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Units. On June 28, 2021, the United States launched airstrikes on two targets in eastern Syria and a third across Iraq's border. “This action should send a message to Iran that it cannot hide behind its proxy forces to attack the United States and our Iraqi partners,” said one former CIA and Pentagon official.
In July 2021, the IAEA said Iran had begun the process of producing enriched uranium metal to help it develop a weapon. Britain, France, and Germany expressed “grave concern” about Iran’s actions.
“Iran has no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon,” they said in a joint statement.
Similarly, the United States found it “worrying” that Iran continued to violate the agreement. “It’s another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
In August 2021, the IAEA reported Iran had made progress in its work on enriched uranium metal despite Western warnings that such work threatens talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal. More ominous was the finding that Iran had increased the purity to which it is refining uranium from 20% in April to 60%. Weapons-grade is around 90% purity.
In September 2021, the IAEA said Iran still was not cooperating with the agency. Iranian officials would not explain uranium traces found at undeclared sites or provide access to monitoring equipment. “Without such monitoring and so-called continuity of knowledge,” Reuters noted, “Iran could produce and hide unknown quantities of this equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons or reactor fuel.”
Blinken said time was running out for Iran to return to the nuclear accord. “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved.”
In September 2021, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi went to Iran to seek compliance with the JCPOA. The only agreement, however, was to allow the agency to replace memory cards in its surveillance cameras. According to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), “Even with a new commitment by Iran to permit the IAEA to service its equipment, the verification process may now face serious gaps, possibly irreversibly breaking the IAEA’s continuity of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities, which is so vital to verification.”
More concerning was the finding by ISIS that Iran has enough enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade uranium for at least two nuclear weapons and that the breakout time for producing enough for one bomb is as short as one month.
President Biden met Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August 2021 and said the United States would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Biden made clear his preference for negotiating a return to the JCPOA with Iran but said if diplomacy failed, he was “ready to turn to other options.”
Bennett reportedly suggested a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts,” which would involve conducting a variety of small operations against Iran that would obviate the need for a largescale military attack and ensure that Iran would require no less than a year to acquire nuclear breakout capability. “The immediate follow-up was to form a joint team based on the joint objectives of rolling Iran back into their box and preventing Iran from ever being able to break out a nuclear weapon,” Bennett said later in a call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We set up a joint team with our national security advisor and America’s, and we’re working very hard, and the cooperation is great.”
Israeli Defense Secretary Benny Gantz later told Foreign Policy, “The current U.S. approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box, I’d accept that.” He said he hoped to see a “viable” plan B, which would require the United States to convince Europe, Russia, and China to apply political, diplomatic, and economic pressure on Iran if negotiations fail. As a last resort, Israel had a “plan C,” which he intimated would be a military option.
Meanwhile, under its new hardline president, Iran has made clear it has no intention of returning to the JCPOA without removing sanctions. New Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also declared that Tehran would not sign the “longer and stronger” deal Biden has said he wants.
Amir-Abdollahian also said that when the United States tried to restart negotiations in September 2021, he insisted that Washington first release $10 billion of Tehran’s frozen funds as a sign of goodwill. The Biden administration rejected the demand. Meanwhile, analysts suggest Iran is stalling to gain leverage to extract more concessions in talks by accelerating its weapons program.
Before resuming negotiations over a return to the JCPOA, Iran’s top negotiator, Ali Baqeri-Kani, said on Nov. 11, 2021, that the upcoming talks will not be about the nuclear issue, which has already been resolved, but will instead focus on removing all sanctions imposed by the U.S. Tehran insists that all sanctions must first be removed in a verifiable manner before the Islamic Republic reverses the “remedial measures” that Tehran took in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Baqeri-Kani also said he had spoken to officials from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Iran is hoping to keep them from supporting the United States. “What is important for these European countries is to pursue their own interests rather than those of anyone else,” Baqeri-Kani said. In an interview with Bloomberg, Baqeri-Kani said the Europeans could use ‘blocking statutes” to protect European companies doing business with Tehran from future American sanctions.
Meanwhile, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan raised with his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, the idea of an interim agreement with Iran. The idea was that in exchange for a freeze from Iran (for example, on enriching uranium to 60%), the U.S. and its allies could release some frozen Iranian funds or provide sanctions waivers on humanitarian goods. Hulata opposed the idea and said Israel feared such a deal would become permanent and allow Iran to maintain its nuclear infrastructure and uranium stockpile.
According to Lahav Harkov, Israel opposes any deal that would allow Iran to receive “massive funds to do what it did last time it got economic relief – ignite proxy warfare throughout the region – and remain closer to the threshold of a nuclear weapon than ever before. It is relieving pressure on Iran without receiving almost anything in return.”
Negotiations resumed in Vienna at the end of November 2021, but the Iranians refused to meet with American officials. Instead, the parties exchanged positions through the other signatories to the nuclear agreement. Iranian officials insisted at the outset that all U.S. sanctions on Iran be lifted and that the United States and its allies promise never to impose sanctions on Iran again.
Meanwhile, the IAEA reported that Iran was enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo plant, violating the JCPOA prohibition on enrichment at Fordo. Israel reportedly shared intelligence with the United States that Iran is preparing to enrich uranium to 90 percent – the level needed to produce a bomb. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon in three weeks. Within six months, it could have enough for four weapons.
The State Department said the United States would consider enrichment to 90 percent a “provocative act.” Similarly, European diplomats said this could lead to terminating negotiations. “You cannot enrich to weapons grade and say that you are seeking a return to an agreement whose goal is to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” a diplomat told the Wall Street Journal. Another senior diplomat added, “If they don’t show us that they are serious this week, then we have a problem.”
A seventh round of talks in Vienna adjourned on December 3, 2021. “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,” said Secretary of State Blinken. European diplomats were also discouraged by Iran’s backtracking on compromises they had made in earlier talks.
“What is not acceptable and what we will not allow to happen is for Iran to try to drag out this process while continuing to move forward inexorably in building up its program,” Blinken said. “Iran has some very important decisions to make in the days ahead,” he added. “We’re either going to get back into compliance with the agreement, or we’re going to have to look at dealing with this problem in other ways.”
While critics fear the administration will ultimately agree to ease or remove sanctions to convince Iran to return to the nuclear deal – even as Iran insists on a complete reversal of sanctions without complying with the original deal or agreeing to a tougher new one – additional sanctions continue to be imposed on Iranian officials and entities. In addition, the administration is seeking to tighten existing sanctions. A delegation was sent to the UAE, Iran’s second-largest trade partner and a conduit for Iran’s trade and financial transactions with other countries, with the message that petrochemical companies and banks circumventing sanctions will “face extreme risk if this continues.” Similar messages may be forthcoming for companies violating sanctions in Malaysia, Turkey, and China.
Just before the resumption of negotiations in Vienna in January, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said, “Israel isn’t automatically opposed to every agreement with Iran, just to an agreement that isn’t good.” He added, “We are sitting at the table with the world powers and are holding discussions about what a good agreement would be. The world is attentive to the Israeli position. We are currently engaged in trench warfare to secure small achievements to improve the agreement.”
Russia reportedly discussed a possible interim agreement with Iran in January 2022 that would have offered limited sanctions relief in return for reimposing some restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program, but Iran rejected the offer.
Negotiations for the U.S. to return to the nuclear deal continued into February 2022 without any indication Iran was prepared to comply with the terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, on February 4, the Biden administration agreed to restore waivers that will exempt Chinese, Russian, and European companies that work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant, and the Tehran Research Reactor from American penalties. The Trump administration originally approved the waivers but rescinded them in May 2020.
State Department spokesman Ned Price claimed this was not “sanctions relief.” He tweeted the U.S. will not provide relief “until/unless Tehran returns to its commitments under the JCPOA.” He added, “We did precisely what the last administration did: permit our international partners to address growing nuclear nonproliferation and safety risks in Iran.”
In a phone call two days later, Biden sought to reassure Prime Minister Bennett that he was committed to Israel’s security and recognized the regional threat posed by Iran and its proxies. While Bennett thanked the president for his support, he later told the Israeli cabinet the agreement being negotiated in Vienna “will damage the ability to deal with the nuclear program. Whoever thinks that an agreement will increase stability – is mistaken. It will temporarily delay enrichment but all of us in the region will pay a heavy, disproportionate price for it.”
Meanwhile, while negotiations continued in Vienna, Iran unveiled its “Khaybar Sheikan” (Khaybar Buster) missile, which has a purported range of more than 900 miles, sufficient to reach Israel.
As reports of an imminent agreement surfaced, Russia threw a wrench into the negotiations. Russia said that Western sanctions imposed on it over its invasion of Ukraine had become an obstacle to completing the deal. Moscow insists that the U.S. and Europe carve out an exception from Ukraine-related sanctions so Russia can trade with Iran. To ensure Russia supports renewing the nuclear agreement, the Biden administration agreed to exempt Russia’s $10 billion nuclear infrastructure deal with Iran.
"These things are totally different and just are not, in any way, linked together. So, I think that's irrelevant," Blinken responded.
Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s delegation, Mikhail Ulyanov, said Iran “got much more than it could expect, much more.” He added Iran fought for its interests “like lions… for every comma, every word and as a rule quite successfully.”
One unresolved issue has been Iran’s demand for the closure of the IAEA investigation into uranium particles found at three undeclared sites. Iran has never explained the evidence of nuclear activity at those sites but has reportedly agreed to supply answers. The IAEA will report on its conclusions before “Re-Implementation Day,” when most U.S. sanctions will be lifted if an agreement on a return to the nuclear deal is reached.
In a further ominous sign that the administration abandoned its commitment to a “longer and stronger” agreement, CIA Director William Burns told the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, “we are mindful of the fact that the Iranian regime poses not only a nuclear or missile issue but also a threat across the Middle East and to our partners in the Middle East. Regardless of how negotiations go, those threats will continue.”
To punctuate the warning, Iran launched a military satellite operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on March 2, 2022). The concern is that this launch is part of developing long-range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.
A final text for a new agreement was “essentially ready and on the table,” according to the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell when the talks were suspended on March 11, 2022, due to Russian demands that U.S. sanctions relief be applied to its future dealings with Iran. It was unclear if a deal could be made without the Russians, which Iran objects to, or if the new demand would prevent an agreement.
In what was seen as part of the effort to entice the Iranians to agree to a deal, Britain paid roughly $530 million to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British dual citizen who was detained in Iran from April 2016 to March 16, 2022, on charges of espionage for the British government. Former Secretary of State Pompeo accused the UK of paying “blood money,” tweeting: “The UK priced taking & holding its citizens hostage at $530 million. We prevented paying blood money— not rewarding hostage-takers. That cash will terrorize Israel, UK & US. Sadly, Iran, w/Russia & China, is rolling the West. Appeasement feels good until it fails— it always does.”
The British government said the payment was to repay a debt for the cancellation of an order of Chieftain tanks following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.
The Iranian media also claimed in April 2022, about $7 billion of Iran’s assets frozen abroad would be released. In November, the Islamic Republic News Agency claimed that $3.5 billion of Iran’s blocked resources had been released by one of the countries holding them.’
Renewal of the JCPOA remained stuck as of April 2022 over the issue of delisting the IRGC from the U.S. terrorism list. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Miley said the IRGC should not be removed from the list, and the administration reportedly will keep the IRGC designated, even if it means no return to the JCPOA. The reports came as the IRGC was implicated in a U.S. base in Syria that resulted in injuries to four American service members.
In addition to demanding the removal of the IRGC from the terror list, members of the Iranian Parliament have set several other conditions for a return to the old deal. “The United States should give legal guarantees, approved by its … Congress, that it will not exit the pact again,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted a statement signed by 250 lawmakers out of a total of 290. The letter also said that under a revived pact, the United States should not be able to “use pretexts to trigger the snapback mechanism,” under which sanctions on Iran would be immediately reinstated.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said if a new deal is signed, Israel won’t face any American restrictions if it wishes to act against Iran. “We’ve been very clear about this. If we have a deal, the Israelis’ hands are not tied. If we don’t have a deal, the Israelis’ hands are certainly not tied...Israel can do and take whatever actions they need to take to protect the state of Israel.”
With talks still stalled, Blinken told Congress that Iran’s breakout time is “down to a matter of weeks.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasized the point later at a press conference. “Their breakout period is down from about a year, which is what we knew it was during the deal, to just a few weeks or less,” she said.
Blinken also told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “there is an ongoing threat against American officials both present and past” from the IRGC. Nevertheless, the National Review said the administration reportedly offered to take the IRGC off the terror list to end these plots. “In my personal opinion, I believe the IRGC-Quds Force to be a terrorist organization and I do not support them being delisted from the foreign terrorist organization [list],” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 7, 2022.
Further complicating negotiations, the IAEA reported in May 2022 yet another example of Iranian noncompliance with the JCPOA, saying it was “able to identify traces of enriched uranium in places that had never been declared by Iran as places where any activity was taking place.” Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said, “We are extremely concerned about this. The situation does not look very good. Iran, for the time being, has not been forthcoming in the kind of information we need from them.”
Iran’s earlier duplicity was revealed by the Wall Street Journal, which reported that Iran stole secret IAEA reports from 2004 until 2006 and circulated the documents among top officials who prepared cover stories and falsified records to conceal work on nuclear weapons. This provided further evidence of the lengths Iran was prepared to go to hide its nuclear program.
Even more concerning was the IAEA conclusion that Iran’s stockpile of 60% highly enriched uranium had grown to nearly 100 pounds, enough for a nuclear bomb.
After months of stonewalling by Iran, the IAEA board overwhelmingly passed a resolution rebuking Iran for failing to cooperate with its investigation into sites where undeclared nuclear material was found. The U.S., France, Germany, and the UK issued a joint statement supporting the resolution. Iran’s response was to remove 27 cameras used to monitor its nuclear activities and announce it would install more advanced centrifuges at Natanz.
In what the United States characterized as another stalling maneuver, Iran agreed to meet with the mediation of Qatar in Doha in July 2022. Malley said, “they seem, at this point, not capable of providing an answer. And so it was more than a little bit of a wasted occasion...The party that has not said ‘yes’ is Iran...The party that needs to provide an answer now is Iran.” He added that the Iranians “have, and including in Doha, added demands that I think for anyone looking at this would be viewed as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal...They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”
Malley acknowledged the Iranians have enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb but tried to be reassuring by adding, “it would be something that we would know, we would see, and to which we would react quite forcefully.”
During his July 2022 visit to Israel, Prime Minister Yair Lapid told Biden, “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.” Biden reiterated his previous commitment to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but did tell an Israeli interviewer he would authorize the use of force “as a last resort.”
Several days later, Richard Moore, chief of Britain’s MI6, told the Aspen Security Forum, “I don't think the Supreme Leader of Iran wants to cut a deal.”
In mid-August, the EU presented Iran with what it called the final text for renewing the nuclear deal and announced negotiations were over. As in the past, Iran found excuses not to agree while it continued to move closer to achieving a nuclear capability. Iran demanded assurances that Western companies investing in Iran would be protected if the U.S. withdrew from the pact again. “What is important for Iran is that there are assurances that if the United States suddenly leaves the deal again…it comes at a price,” an adviser to Iran’s negotiating team told the BBC. Another Iranian official told Reuters, “We are selling our oil, we have reasonable trade with many countries, including neighboring countries, we have our friends like Russia and China that both are at odds with Washington ... our (nuclear) program is advancing. Why should we retreat?”
Even as reports of a possible deal were being published Iran escalated its war on the United States. Iran-backed forces launched a drone attack in August on a base run by American and U.S.-backed Syrian opposition fighters in eastern Syria. The U.S. responded with an airstrike on facilities used by groups associated with the IRGC (Reuters, August 24, 2022). Two rocket and mortar attacks were launched a day later on a U.S. installation in which one American military service member was injured. U.S. forces retaliated and killed four enemy fighters and destroyed seven rocket launchers.
In March it was disclosed that Iran plotted to assassinate former National Security Advisor John Bolton. An official told the Washington Examiner that the administration did not want to indict the Iranians to avoid jeopardizing the Vienna talks. In August, the Department of Justice charged a member of the IRGC based in Tehran, Shahram Poursafi, with plotting to kill Bolton. Poursafi reportedly agreed to pay $300,000 to have Bolton murdered, and offered $1 million to kill former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo and another former State Department official, Brian Hook, have security guards due to “serious and credible” threats from Iran.
Israel continued to warn against rejoining the JCPOA, pointing to the attacks and threats against Americans. Prime Minister Lapid said easing sanctions would produce a windfall for Iran. “This money will fund the Revolutionary Guards. It will fund the Basij who oppress the Iranian people. It will fund more attacks on American bases in the Middle East. It will be used to strengthen Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. This money will go to the people who are trying to kill authors and thinkers in New York. And of course, it will be used to strengthen Iran's nuclear program.”
Lapid quoted Rafael Grossi, the Director-General of the IAEA, in response to a question as to whether Iran fulfilled its obligation to provide answers about its nuclear program: “Absolutely not. So far, Iran has not given us the technically credible explanations that we need to explain the origin of many traces of uranium… Let us have an explanation: if there was nuclear material there, where is it now?”
Lapid also reiterated Israel will not be deterred by an agreement. “We have made it clear to everyone: if a deal is signed, it does not obligate Israel. We will act to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. We are not prepared to live with a nuclear threat above our heads from an extremist, violent Islamist regime. This will not happen - because we will not let it happen.”
The United States characterized Iran’s response to the EU’s final proposal as “not at all encouraging” and a step “backwards.” Further complicating negotiations was the IAEA’s report that Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% has grown by about 30% and is now large enough for a nuclear bomb if enriched to 90%. The IAEA has also reported an increase in the number of advanced centrifuges Tehran has installed and fed with uranium at its main nuclear facilities.
While the IAEA was reporting on what Iran is doing within its borders, a Swedish intelligence report revealed “Iran also conducts industrial espionage such as primarily aimed at Swedish high-tech industry and Swedish products that can be used in a nuclear weapons program.”
The Swedish report is just one of many by intelligence services about Iran’s covert efforts around the world to obtain nuclear technology. These efforts have gone on since the signing of the JCPOA and are one more example of how the agreement has failed to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the inadequacy of the verification mechanisms.
In October 2022, Malley said that the administration is not going to “waste time” on trying to revive the deal because of Tehran’s crackdown on protesters, Iranian support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Iran’s positions on its nuclear program.
Two months later, President Biden said that the nuclear deal is “dead” but would not announce it. When asked about the comment, a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios “The JCPOA is not our focus right now. It’s not on the agenda.”
Subsequently, it was revealed that Iran had uranium enriched to 84%, just below the 90% needed for a weapon. Iran now has sufficient uranium to fuel multiple bombs and could produce enough fissile material for a bomb in about 12 days. Even more alarming, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on March 23, 2023, “From the time of an Iranian decision…Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.” This estimate for the time to build a weapon was alarming as others have consistently said it could take a year or more.
While the United States has engaged in joint drills with Israel meant to send a message to Iran of the military capabilities of both countries to take action against its nuclear program, it is thought that the Iranians do not believe the United States would attack and that it is going to restrain Israel from doing so. The failure of the United States to retaliate after America’s forces in Syria were targeted twice by Iranian Shiite-militia proxies reinforced their confidence. That may have changed, however, after the U.S. responded with airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in retaliation for an Iranian suicide drone attack on a coalition base in northeast Syria on March 23, 2023, which killed a U.S. contractor, and wounded five U.S. service members and one U.S. contractor.
After months of seeming inaction on the diplomatic front as Iran continued to flout the nuclear agreement and move closer to having the capability to build a bomb, the administration reportedly was offering Iran a deal whereby as much as $20 billion of Iranian assets in Iraqi banks would be transferred in exchange for Iran accepting restrictions on its nuclear program and releasing three American hostages. Israeli officials were alarmed by the reports and believed negotiations being conducted in Oman were moving quickly and could be completed in a matter of weeks. One official told Haaretz that Israel is regularly briefed on the talks and that the government has not taken a position. “At the moment,” the official said, “we’re not speaking out publicly against the talks, but we can express our reservations. We keep emphasizing that in any case, we’re not a side to these understandings, and we will maintain our freedom of operation to protect our interests.”
Similarly, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog said, “As far as we’re concerned, diplomacy in and of itself, and such understandings, are not necessarily bad to the extent that they can help deescalate a situation” (Haaretz, June 15, 2023).
In the meantime, the U.S. has given Iraq permission to bypass sanctions and transfer $2.7 billion to Iran to cover Iraq’s debt to Iran for supplying them with gas and electricity.
Nevertheless, Ayatollah Ali Khameini remained defiant, declaring that “the West could not stop Iran from building nuclear weapons if Tehran wanted a pursue a nuclear arms program....they wouldn’t be able to prevent us from doing so, just like they couldn’t prevent our nuclear advancements so far.” He added that an agreement could be signed with the West “but the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched.”
Additional details about negotiations leaked to the press indicate that in exchange for not increasing U.S. sanctions, allowing Iranian oil tankers undisturbed passage, releasing some of Iran’s frozen assets, and refraining from further resolutions against Iran in the UN or the IAEA, Iran will suspend uranium enrichment at 60%, restrain its proxies from attacking U.S. forces and contractors in Syria and Iraq, increase its cooperation with the IAEA, and limit the supply of ballistic missiles to Russia. Iran would also release the Americans it is holding hostage. The administration is referring to this as an “informal” agreement so it can claim it does not have to be submitted to Congress for review. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent a letter to the president insisting the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) is “deliberately expansive in scope” and that “any arrangement or understanding with Iran, even informal, requires submission to Congress.” McCaul also expressed frustration that Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley has refused to testify before his Committee.
In an apparent attempt to keep open the possibility of an agreement and encourage Iran to slow its pace toward a nuclear weapon, the administration exchanged several jailed Iranians and $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue for the release of five Iranian-American dual citizens -- Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and two others whose names have been withheld at their families’ request -- held hostage by the regime on phony spying charges.
According to former State Department advisor on Iran, Gabriel Noronha, the Iranians who will be released by the U.S. include “illegal foreign agents and Iranians who tried to procure parts for nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and Iran’s terror apparatus.” Al-Monitor provided the names and the crimes for which they were convicted.
According to the New York Times, the money will be drawn from assets frozen in South Korea and placed into an account in Qatar’s central bank. The Biden administration informed Congress that it had issued a waiver for international banks to handle the funds without running afoul of sanctions. The account will be controlled by the government of Qatar, which is supposed to ensure it is used only for humanitarian purchases such as medicine and food.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi contradicted the administration, insisting the money “belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money.”
Critics pointed out that even if the administration’s position is correct, the windfall frees up funds from the Iranian budget that can be used for more nefarious purposes because money is fungible.
In a speech to the UN General Assembly a day after the hostage exchange and release of frozen assets, Raisi repeated Iran’s threats to take revenge on those responsible for killing Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Hours earlier, in his address, President Biden’s only reference to Iran was to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In its August 2023 report, the IAEA said Iran’s overall stockpile of enriched uranium fell, but there were significant increases in Iran’s buildup of 20% and 5% enriched uranium. “Slowing accumulation of 60% enriched material thus far does not impact Iran’s overall ability to make weapons-grade uranium for several atomic weapons in under three months,” said Andrea Stricker of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
In addition, Iran continued to renege on its promise to install cameras at nuclear facilities, denied visas to inspectors, and refused to answer questions regarding undeclared nuclear material discovered in 2019. Grossi said, “Iran has effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran” and said he strongly condemned “this disproportionate and unprecedented unilateral measure.” He added that it “constitutes an unnecessary blow to an already strained relationship between the IAEA and Iran.”
The United States subsequently called on Iran to take “de-escalatory steps if it wants to reduce tensions and create a space for diplomacy,” said State Department spokesman Matt Miller. “Just in the last few weeks, we've seen Iran take steps to undermine the International Atomic Energy Agency's ability to do its work,” Miller said. “So if Iran really is serious about taking de-escalatory steps, the first thing it (could) do would be to cooperate with the IAEA.”
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