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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Majority of US voters support the deal with Iran

US presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to return to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Instead, President Biden sticks to the dangerous and destructive policy dictated by Donald Trump who withdrew from the deal in 2018 and slapped 1,500 punitive sanctions on Iran.

Biden hesitates although 54 per cent of registered US voters support a deal while only 20 per cent oppose; among Biden’s Democrats the number is 70 per cent backers and six per cent opponents; among independents 50 per cent support and 30 per cent do not; and 41 per cent of Republicans are in favour against 35 who are not.

Since Biden’s own positive rating is currently a low 41 per cent against 56 per cent negative rating, it would seem it would behove him to re-enter the deal. The main obstacle is Tehran’s insistence that the US must lift Trump’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRG) as a “foreign terrorist organisation,” making the IRG the world’s sole national army to join a host of armed non-state actors.

The text, a somewhat amended version of the original document, has been ready for months and awaits finalisation. Why then is Biden procrastinating and prevaricating? He faces stiff opposition from domestic anti-Iran lobbyists and legislators and Israel where the government rejects the deal. In both countries military and intelligence experts are, however, in favour. They hold, correctly, that Tehran has made great strides in developing both nuclear expertise and output since Trump pulled out, prompting Iran to gradually reduce its adherence in retaliation.

Instead of being limited to 3.67 uranium enrichment Iran has 43 kilograms of 60 per cent enriched uranium: this is a few steps away from the 90 per cent needed for a bomb. Instead of having a 300 kilogram stockpile of 3.67 enriched uranium, Iran has a stock 18 times larger of uranium enriched above the 3.67 per cent level permitted. Instead of carrying out enrichment with old, approved centrifuges, Iran has employed advanced centrifuges.

Instead of abiding by the stringent monitoring regime put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has been slipping surveillance. Until Iran began to breach the regulatory regime, it was the toughest on earth.

Nevertheless, Iran has pledged to revert to the deal once the US re-enters and to halt enrichment above 3.67 per cent, export all but 300 kilogrammes of the permitted 3.67 per cent of material in its stockpile, revert to old centrifuges which have been warehoused, and re-engage fully with the IAEA monitoring effort.

Opponents of the deal argue its “sunset clauses” will expire by 2031, thereby ending restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. This may be addressed in the new deal.

However, they also contend it fails to curb in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and sup- port for Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Yemeni Houthi rebels, Iraqi Shia militias and the Syrian government.

Since these issues are outside the purview of the 2015 deal, Iran rightly rejects including them in its successor. Tehran has also made it clear that they can be discussed directly with the US once Biden re-joins the deal and sanctions are lifted.

After months of trying to get the external issues incorporated into the nuclear deal, the Biden administration conceded that this is impossible.

On April 29th this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign had failed and “produced a more dangerous nuclear programme” while Iran stepped up involvement in regional affairs. These post-Ukraine war remarks suggested that the Biden administration was ready to return to the deal.

However, the administration continues to blow hot at one moment and cold another. Last week Washington may have blown up the deal. At the 35-member IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna the US — along with acolytes Britain, France, and Germany — secured the adoption of a resolution critical of Iran over its inability or refusal to account for traces of nuclear material at three undeclared sites found by IAEA monitors in 2019 and 2020.

The resolution, which received 30 votes in favour — with Iran and Russia voting against and India, China and Libya abstaining — urges Iran to co-operate “without delay” with inspectors after IAEA director Rafael Grossi reported he had not received a “technically credible” explanation for the presence of particles.

Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi pointed out that uranium “contamination” was possible “in a country as vast as Iran.” He also suggested “human sabotage” by Israel which is blamed for repeated attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Iranian officials are suspicious due to the fact that former Israeli Prime Minister Bin- yamin Netanyahu instigated visits by IAEA inspectors to one of the three contaminate sites at the village of Turquzabad near Tehran. IAEA monitors took soil samples and concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” at the location which may have been used for storage as there were no signs of processing. How did Netanyahu know there were samples at this site?

Although the IAEA still has more than 40 cameras which will continue to operate at Iran’s enrichment facilities, Grossi stated Tehran’s action mounted to a “serious challenge.” He warned that in three or four weeks the agency would be unable to provide “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s activities. “This could be a fatal blow” to negotiations over the nuclear deal, he stated.

He also warned that Iran is “just a few weeks” away from having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. However, Iran halted work on weaponisation in 2003 and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly stated that Iran will not manufacture nuclear weapons as they are prohibited by Islam.

Kelsey Davenport of the “independent” Washington-based Arms Control Association told the BBC that in ten days or less Iran could transform its current stock of 60 per cent enriched uranium into the 90 per cent required for weapons. She said, however, that manufacturing bombs would require one or two years.

If Biden continues dithering the deal could die, further destabilising an already unstable region.

Michael Jansen, Political Correspondent

12 Jun 2022