The early attempts of the Biden administration to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement are receiving a chilly early reaction from Tehran. Though few anticipated a breakthrough in the new administration’s first month, Iran’s tough line indicates a tough path ahead.
Having made many important openings to Iran in its first weeks in office, the outreach of the administration was all but shunned by the Iranians. They had already dismissed the opening gambit by Biden: a U.S. return to the arrangement that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018 if Iran resumes full compliance with the agreement’s obligations.
Iran is shaping up to be a big test of the overall foreign policy strategy of the Biden administration, which the president has said would realign itself with the kind of multilateral diplomacy shunned by Trump. Although there are other hot-button concerns, among them Russia, China and North Korea, Iran has a special significance for the top national security aides of Biden. They include State Secretary Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Iran Special Envoy Rob Malley, all of whom have been closely involved in the drafting of President Barack Obama’s 2015 deal and may have personal stakes in saving it.
Biden took office pledging to reverse Trump’s pullout from the settlement, which in exchange for curbs on his nuclear programme gave him billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Just last week, in at least three ways, Biden delivered: agreeing to return to international talks with Iran to restart the agreement, rescinding Trump’s determination that all of the U.N. The sanctions on Iran and the lifting of onerous travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations must be restored.
Nevertheless, Iran has held firm to demands that it will not respond to anything less than a complete lifting of the reimposed sanctions by Trump. Iran made good on a threat to suspend adherence to the U.N. over the weekend. Agreement permitting intrusive inspections of the nuclear sites declared by it. While it stopped short of demanding the withdrawal of foreign inspectors, Iran reduced cooperation with them and, if sanctions were not lifted, threatened to reconsider the measure in three months.
The hard-nosed position of the Iranians has left the administration at the cusp of a tough choice: move forward with sanctions relief before Iran resumes full compliance and risks losing the leverage it has or doubling down first on demands for full compliance and risk Tehran fully walking away from the agreement.
Given the politically volatile nature of Iran in Washington, Republicans strongly oppose the nuclear agreement, and in Europe and the Middle East itself, especially in Israel and the Gulf Arab states that are most directly challenged, it is a delicate balance and one the administration is loathe to accept it faces.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed on Monday that the United States is prepared to return to the nuclear agreement provided that Tehran demonstrates “strict compliance” with it. Blinken told the U.N.-backed Geneva Disarmament Conference that the U.S. is committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon and is committed to working with allies and partners to expand and improve the agreement reached between Iran and Germany, France, Britain, Russia, China and the U.S.
“The best path to achieving that goal is diplomacy,” he said.
However, just 24 hours earlier, on Sunday, Iran rejected demands to suspend cooperation with the U.N. Atomic Watchdog. Although Iran has not expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for monitoring Iranian compliance with the agreement, it has placed an end to the agency’s access to video from cameras mounted at a variety of locations.
There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. to that change, but the White House and State Department both downplayed the value of the move on Monday.
Our opinion is that negotiation is the only way forward to stop Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon,” reporters told White House press secretary Jen Psaki.” “That does not mean that they have clearly not taken the steps necessary to comply with them and we have not taken any steps or indicated that we are going to meet the requirements they are also putting forward.”
Speaker Ned Price addressed the IAEA mission more specifically at the State Department, praising the agency for its ‘professionalism’ in keeping inspectors and their apparatus in the country despite the early threat from Iran to expel them on Tuesday. He said the United States supports the progress of IAEA chief Rafael Grossi in reaching a provisional agreement with Iran, but regretted that Tehran remains out of compliance.
Price said the administration was worried that Iran seemed to be moving in the wrong direction, but did not comment on the view of the administration as to whether its outreach had yielded results to date. Nor was he prepared to say what the administration could do to force Iran back into line with the agreement, given that all the limitations it imposed were abandoned by its continuing threat.
“The United States is prepared to meet with the Iranians to hash out these difficult and complex issues,” Price said, referring to terms used by government officials to refer to their initial goal of “compliance for compliance” and then “compliance for compliance-plus.”
According to administration officials, “Compliance-plus” will include restrictions on Iran’s non-nuclear operations, including the production of missiles and support for Mideast rebel groups and militias. A primary reason Trump gave for withdrawing from the nuclear agreement was that it did not resolve those concerns and for more than a year his administration has sought to extend the deal to include them.