During Joe Biden’s campaign, and then when he was elected president, the greatest concern of Israel and many its supporters was Biden’s desire to return to the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden will be pressured by the other signatories 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 unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” He will rejoin the agreement “if Iran returns to strict compliance” and will “push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities.” He said his administration will 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 negotiation of a better deal.
The Gulf states that objected to the deal are also vehemently against 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, however, 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 related to the nuclear program. At a minimum, Iran expects to be allowed to sell its oil. Meanwhile, the elements the U.S. wants included in a new deal, such as Iran’s missile program, 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 don’t trust the U.S. now to stick to any new agreement. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, also has a strong disincentive not to offer any compromises because he is 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 cutoff and in the same breadth declare they are closer now to a bomb. First, they were not supposed to be able 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 level of purity. 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 having signed it.
Meanwhile, Khamenei set his own 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 director general of the IAEA, said his inspectors would have “less access,” but that 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 sites under surveillance.
Even as Iran continue 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 initally 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 Biden’s team does 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 will 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 discussion 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 that took place 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 without going 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 stronger 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 how to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance.
A U.S. official said that intermediaries would seek an agreement on how to synchronize steps to return to their commitments, including the lifting of economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, said no negotiation 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 new 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 at least until a president is elected. He also said the Biden administration could stop the Chinese, or at least inhibit their economic relations with Iran by imposing “secondary sanctions on Chinese banks.”
Though originally 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 due to expire in 2025 and 2030 would not be sufficient. In his book Battlegrounds, he had 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 and said it had no “credible” civilian use, referring to Iran’s frequent claim its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
In an effort 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 insistance 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 major problem with the JCPOA and allowed Iran to continue to enrich uranium and now increase the level of purity 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 deal. If, however, a new deal is negotiated, INARA would be triggered. A simple majority in both houses can block the agreement, but 2/3 majority in each house is required to override a presidential veto (opponents did not have enough votes in 2015).
Some Republicans are seeking to pass legislation that would require 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 any congressional approval. The law is unsettled as to whether a president can unilaterally terminate a treaty.
If a new agreement was 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 present 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 were 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 its own weapon, 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 insrurance, oil, and shipping. Officials in the administration did not directly deny the claim; instead, they said only that 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 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.
Prior to 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 any dealings with him.
Iran indicated it would not be making any decisions before Raisi is 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:
- Several attacks on U.S. bases were launched by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.
- 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 coaltion 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. The withdrawal of U.S. forces by President Obama 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 just across the border in Iraq. “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 was continuing to violate the agreement. “It’s another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
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