Biden faces hurdles on return to Iran deal - GulfToday

Biden faces hurdles on return to Iran deal

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rafael Grossi

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi during a meeting with head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Ali-Akbar Salehi (not in photo) in Tehran on Sunday. Reuters

US President Joe Biden’s acceptance of an invitation from the European Union to attend talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal amounts to capitulation to pressure from the other six signatories eager to end tensions generated by Trump administration renunciation in 2018. The proposed meeting would be attended by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and, hopefully, Iran, as well as the US.

In a goodwill gesture, the Biden administration revoked two Trump-era measures: restrictions on the freedom of movement of Iranian diplomats accredited to the UN and an effort to reimpose UN sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal. However, the Biden administration insists Iran should return to compliance before the US does. Iran contends, rightly, that it has sustained the nuclear deal by remaining within it despite the challenges posed by the Trump administration which waged “economic warfare” on the Iranian people and plunged the country’s economy into crisis.

Tehran has exerted pressure on the US and other signatories of the deal to urge Biden to act quickly on his campaign and post-election promise to return to it. Iran has suspended compliance on key provisions and has threatened to halt by today International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of sites under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol.

Iran can return to the deal by ceasing to enrich uranium over the limit set by the deal, exporting most of its stockpile, and warehousing banned centrifuges. The Biden administration has far more difficult tasks to perform. It must untangle scores of Trump-era financial, economic, trade, targeted personal and business sanctions and lift those that violate the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

So far, Tehran has not accepted the invitation and has simply reiterated its demand that the US must lift sanctions before Iran will return to compliance because Donald Trump was the first to violate the agreement by pulling out in May 2018 and reimposing sanctions. Iran justifies its behaviour by citing Article 36 of the JCPOA which deals with non-compliance.

This states that Iran could “cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA” if any or all signatories end compliance. Tehran also argues it continued full compliance for a full year after Trump withdrew the US. Iran openly declares breaches in limitations imposed by the JCPOA and continues to permit IAEA inspectors to visit nuclear and suspected nuclear sites in Iran in line with its provisions.

On the impasse over the first step, in an interview with CNN on February 1st, Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif called for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to assume his role as JCPOA coordinator and create a mechanism to choreograph the steps to be taken simultaneously by both sides to achieve JCPOA reinstatement.

Zarif’s sensible words were ignored by the Biden administration and largely by the global media. The administration initially dismissed the proposal because of infighting between two camps of high level officials. While the envoy for the JCPOA, Robert Malley, urged Biden to move quickly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pressed him to add other US concerns to the original deal. This is an option flatly rejected by Tehran which deeply mistrusts the US. In another interview with CNN, former US State Department adviser Vali Nasr warned that the administration’s prevarication and procrastination over  JCPOA could convince Iran that, due to European support, “Biden is more dangerous than Trump” whose antics were largely rejected by European leaders.

During his address on Friday to the Munich security conference, Biden said that the US has to regain the trust of former allies and partners as trust was destroyed by Trump. Biden has also to regain the trust of antagonists including Russia, China, and Iran which have borne the burden of Trump’s erratic and destructive foreign policies. Trump’s rule has destroyed not only trust in him and his administration but also trust in the US as a country and world power. Furthermore, mistrust reigns as Trump or Trumpish Republicans could return to rule in four years’ time. Trump won nearly 75 million votes in the November US presidential election and, despite the pro-Trump riot in Washington, continues to enjoy the support of 89 per cent of Republican voters and 50 per cent of the public.

On trust of the US itself, Biden has set himself an almost impossible task although he has vowed to dismantle most of Trump’s destructive legacy. He has returned the US to membership in the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organisation and promised to deliver US commitments to these organisations. He has also said he would refund the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees and USAID programmes benefiting Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Returning to the PCPOA should also be a simple matter but is opposed by both Democrat and Republican legislators and powerful anti-Iran and pro-Israel lobby groups while key regional allies have expressed concern over such a move. Iran also has a “bad press” in the US where it is demon- ised for its expulsion of Washington’s ally, the shah, in 1979, and the 444-day detention of US diplomats in the Tehran embassy.

Faced with widespread anti-Iranian feeling in the US, the Obama administration, which negotiated the JCPOA, failed to deliver fully on US obligations with regard to sanctions. Therefore, trust in is short supply in Tehran, notably because Biden was number two in that administration.

Although European and Asian governments believed the JCPOA would allow them to trade with and invest in Iran without incurring secondary US sanctions, this was not the case. Global financial institutions were intimidated by the threat of US sanctions if they dealt with Iran. Consequently, the opening to the world Iran and potential partners expected was partial and Iran did not benefit from major foreign investment, particularly in its deteriorated oil sector.

Tehran’s hardliners who opposed the JCPOA when it was being negotiated also reject a return to the deal. They argue that Iran has managed to survive US sanctions which are slowly being eroded by external forces. Consequently, Iran simply has to wait for the punitive regime to collapse.

Biden’s delay in announcing US compliance has been welcomed by Iranian hardliners as this could ensure their candidate’s victory in the presidential election in June. Once their man takes over from incumbent moderate Hassan Rouhani in August, the JCPOA will be dead and buried and there will be no Iranian concessions to the US and the Western powers on its ballistic missiles and interventions in Arab affairs. This is the worst possible scenario for all concerned — the powers behind the JCPOA, the region, and the international community as failure to return to the deal can only boost regional tensions.

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