If President Joe Biden is serious about rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, then the next few weeks could prove make-or-break as the politics in both Washington and Tehran appear poised to intensify.
For now, however, Biden’s team is struggling just to get the Iranians to the table.
Biden administration officials, mindful of the increasingly unfavorable calendar, plan to put forth a new proposal to jump-start the talks as soon as this week, two people familiar with the situation told POLITICO.
The proposal asks Iran to halt some of its nuclear activities, such as work on advanced centrifuges and the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, in exchange for some relief from U.S. economic sanctions, said one of the people, who stressed that the details are still being worked out.
It’s not at all certain that Iran will accept the terms. Earlier this year, Tehran rejected a U.S. proposal it deemed unacceptable, then offered its own idea that Biden’s team declared a non-starter, two people familiar with the situation said.
Still, officials in both countries are aware that if no breakthrough takes place over the next few weeks, little is likely to happen until September at the earliest, and that’s if the deal can be saved at all. The warnings come as progressives pressure Biden to rejoin the deal and as some officials and analysts wonder if Biden is genuine about his stated desire to see the agreement revived.
“Iran is poised to blow through additional nuclear deal restrictions in the next few weeks. This is the crucial time to avoid an escalation of the situation,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an organization that has closely tracked nuclear negotiations involving Iran.
One reason for a sense of urgency among some U.S. officials as well as those outside American government is that Iran holds presidential elections in June, with campaign season kicking off in May. The politics surrounding the 2015 nuclear agreement are very sensitive in Iran, so the theocratic regime there is unlikely to allow any major moves on it amid a campaign.
Separately, an important temporary agreement that Iran reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency will expire in late May. That temporary agreement paused Iran’s effort to curtail the IAEA’s access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although the U.N. agency will still have access to Iran’s program, it will be less than world powers would like.
The American proposal slated to be set forth this week is, “more than anything, about trying to get the conversation started” between the United States and Iran, one of the people familiar with the situation said.
Asked for official comment, a senior Biden administration official declined to discuss details of diplomatic conversations: “We have been clear that we are ready to pursue a mutual return to the [Iran deal],” the official added. “We have also been open that we are talking with our [international] partners … about the best way to achieve this, including through a series of initial, mutual steps. We have been looking at options for doing so, including with indirect conversations through our European partners.”
In an email, Shahrokh Nazemi, the head of the press section at Iran’s mission to the United Nations, said the “return of the U.S. to the [deal] needs no specific proposal. It only requires a political decision by the U.S. to go for the full and immediate implementation of its obligations under” the agreement and a key U.N. resolution.
Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program was meant for peaceful purposes, not making a bomb.
The U.S. and Iran have been exchanging ideas for how to jump-start negotiations for several weeks, mainly by using intermediaries in Europe. There have not been direct U.S.-Iran discussions, people familiar with the situation said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. suggested that it would give Iran access to a small amount of its billions of dollars in frozen assets in exchange for Iran stopping its 20 percent enrichment of uranium, one of the people confirmed.
Tehran balked at what it saw as an unequal offer. In response, it suggested that it would halt uranium enrichment for a month in exchange for the U.S. lifting all its sanctions. The American side saw that as more of a cheeky rejoinder than a serious counter-proposal, the person said.
The 2015 agreement, which was negotiated by several countries, lifted an array of U.S. and international economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, reimposing U.S. sanctions as well as adding new ones. In response, Iran has taken several steps that have put it out of compliance.
Biden and his top aides have said the United States won’t lift its sanctions unless Iran returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. administration also has said it wants to build on the original agreement, crafting a “longer and stronger” deal that could cover topics outside of just Iran’s nuclear program.
“The ball is really in their court to see if they want to take the path to diplomacy and returning to compliance with the agreement,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said of the Iranians.
Iran, however, appears interested in simply restoring the original agreement, which would give it needed relief from sanctions that have damaged its economy. It argues that because the U.S. walked away first from a deal that was working, the U.S. should take the first step by removing the sanctions.
In a recent interview with POLITICO Magazine, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif downplayed the idea of follow-on negotiations, saying Tehran didn’t trust the U.S. after the Trump-era attempt to kill the original deal.
“If the U.S. passes the test of [the 2015 deal], which doesn’t seem very likely, then we can consider other issues,” Zarif added. “But I don’t think the U.S. would be prepared to discuss those issues. Is the U.S. ready to reduce its arms shipments to the region?”
People familiar with the situation say the true problem at the moment isn’t about the sequencing of who does what first. Rather, it’s about what exactly each side would have to do, or give up, at this stage if it is serious about bringing both countries back into compliance.
“What Tony Blinken or [National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan need to say is what the U.S. is willing to do if Iran comes back into compliance,” said Kimball of the Arms Control Association. “That would provide an important public signal into where the Biden administration wants this to go. The public posturing of the Biden administration right now looks a lot like that of the Trump administration, and that has not been encouraging to the Iranian side.”
The next Iranian president could be drawn from Iran’s more conservative political ranks. That element of Iranian society is more averse to deal-making with the United States than those on the so-called reformist side of the spectrum. Outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration helped craft the deal, has been considered closer to the reformist camp.
Matters of state in Iran are ultimately decided by a cleric, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in charge of the country for decades and is deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions.
The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran four decades ago as adherents of the Middle Eastern country’s Islamist revolution held dozens of Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The lack of diplomatic ties has long complicated any U.S.-Iranian talks, and the nuclear negotiations involved secret discussions brokered by the tiny country of Oman.
Still, even if the next Iranian president, with Khamenei’s blessing, is open to talks, he and his aides will need time to transition into office and catch up on the various files. Negotiations that follow could take months, getting closer to the time when elements of the original nuclear deal start to expire.
Biden administration officials are conscious of the calendar but determined not to let it push them into a weak position, people familiar with the situation said.
Biden faces pressure from both the left and the right on how to tackle Iran. Progressive organizations have planned events this week to publicly call for Biden to return to the nuclear deal. At the same time, Republicans and some moderate and hawkish Democrats have made statements and sent letters to Biden urging him to stay tough on Iran and hold out for a better deal.
Biden himself, meanwhile, appears in no rush to restore the original deal, people familiar with the situation said. The president is well-aware that the public is more concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and other issues. Plus, having a Senate split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats also gives Biden less room to maneuver politically.
“He’s very comfortable with where we are,” one person familiar with the situation said. “Is he lying awake at night worrying about this? He’s probably got other things to worry him more.”
In a speech marking the Persian New Year earlier this month, Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, said his country, too, is in “no hurry” to return to compliance with the deal.
“It’s not a matter of who should be the first,” he said, according to various media accounts. “The issue is that we trusted the Americans and fulfilled our commitments in the nuclear deal, but they didn’t.”
Earlier this year, there were debates within Biden’s team over whether to simply restore the original nuclear deal or hold out for a bigger, more expansive one, with the option of an interim deal along the way. Those divisions seem to have receded as the administration seeks a formula that will simply bring Iran back to the table.
The 2015 nuclear agreement took several years to negotiate and it involved the United States, then led by President Barack Obama, as well as Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, and France.
In walking away from the agreement, Trump argued that it had too many sunset clauses and that it should have covered aspects of Iran’s behavior beyond its nuclear program. Many of Trump’s critics said the real reason he left the deal was simply out of spite toward his predecessor, Obama.
European officials have since tried to salvage the agreement, but it’s been a challenge because their governments and private firms, too, could face U.S. sanctions if they did business with Iran.
European leaders tried to arrange an informal meeting between U.S. and Iranian representatives, which would likely have been held earlier this month. But Iranian officials rejected the idea, saying the “time isn’t ripe.”
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