New regime, old games: U.S. goes slow on restoring nuclear treaty with Iran

The Biden administration seems to be in no hurry to restore the nuclear treaty with Iran, which is increasingly losing patience, while Israel is busy sabre-rattling to prevent the two nations from signing a deal.

Published : Feb 17, 2021 06:00 IST

Javad Zarif,  the Iranian Foreign Minister, with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, after a joint news conference in Moscow on January 26, 2021.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, after a joint news conference in Moscow on January 26, 2021.

On his campaign trail, Joseph Biden had said that the restoration of the United States-Iran nuclear deal would be one of his foreign policy priorities if elected President. However, after taking over as President, he has shown no urgency to engage Iran. Antony Blinken, his Secretary of State, speaking after being confirmed by the U.S. Congress, said that the Biden administration remains committed to the nuclear deal but added that the negotiations to get the deal back on track could take some time. Iran has said that the U.S. government has the moral duty of restoring the agreement it signed in 2015. In 2018, the then President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear treaty was called, and once again slammed draconian sanctions on Iran.

Blinken told the media in late January: “Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come to compliance and for us to assess whether it is meeting its obligations.”

Biden and Israel

Blinken’s pro-Israel views, like those of his boss, Biden, are well known. After his appointment, he has been full of praise for the so-called “Abraham accords” which the Trump administration pushed through during its final months in office. The accords formalised relations between Israel and two Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, dealing another body blow to the Palestinian cause.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during her confirmation hearings said that she believed the U.N. and its agencies were “unfairly” targeting Israel and “vowed” to steadfastly support the country in U.N. forums. But the appointment of Rob Malley as the U.S. envoy to Iran has pleased those who are in favour of reviving the nuclear deal. Malley was the chief U.S. negotiator in the talks that led to the nuclear deal. The pro-Israeli lobby in the U.S. is upset with his appointment, but Biden has stood solidly behind Malley so far.

The Biden administration’s pro-Israel tilt, although not yet as pronounced as the previous one’s, was evident when it decided that its embassy will remain in the disputed city of Jerusalem. The Abraham accords also signal the emergence of a new anti-Iran military alliance, with Israel emerging as a new guarantor of the conservative Gulf monarchies. Also read: Israel's murderous game plan

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has said that she expects the Arab countries that have recognised Israel to vote with Israel in the U.N. on issues relating to the region. The Biden administration is also unlikely to roll back most of the commitments the Trump administration had given to Israel. Trump’s moves on Iran were dictated to a large extent by the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington and the Israeli government. Trump had an 80 per cent approval rating in Israel.

There were reports that Trump was seriously considering a military strike against Iran in the last days of his presidency but was dissuaded from doing so by the Pentagon top brass. Tensions in the region were high after the U.S. despatched B-52 bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a nuclear submarine to the Persian Gulf after Trump lost the election in November. The provocative flights of the B-52 bombers over West Asian air space have continued under the Biden administration.

Concerns about Iran

Iran conducted a naval drill in the Gulf of Oman in response to the provocations from the U.S. military. Cruise missiles were fired during the Iranian military exercise. Iran’s medium-range missiles have a range of 2,000 kilometres and as the precision strikes last year on a U.S. military base in Iraq showed, the Iranians have mastered short- and medium-range missile technology.

Blinken, echoing the language used by the previous administration, is now talking about the need to enter into a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran that would deal with other “deeply problematic issues”. Biden has said that he is concerned about Iran’s missile programme and support for friendly militias and groups in the region that are opposed to Israel and extremist organisations such as al Qaeda and the Daesh (Islamic State).

During his confirmation hearing Blinken told Congress that he would consult with Israel and other allies in the region that are hostile to Iran, like the Saudis and the Emiratis, before re-entering the nuclear deal.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, reacted to Blinken’s statement by tweeting that the new Secretary of State “needs a reality check”. He reminded Blinken that it was the U.S. that violated the JCPOA by its unilateral withdrawal from the treaty. The U.S., he said, had imposed sanctions that blocked “food, medicine to Iranians” and punished “adherence to the agreement”. Zarif stressed that Iran had scrupulously adhered to the JCPOA and had only taken “foreseen remedial measures” after the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty.

On January 4, Iran announced that it had stepped up its uranium enrichment to 20 per cent. After the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in November last, the country’s parliament passed a law demanding the raising of the enrichment level. Iran has blamed Israel and the U.S. for the killing of its top scientist. The current enrichment level is still below the levels required for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. After Trump started his “maximum pressure” policy, Iran retaliated by increasing its stockpile of low enriched uranium from 660 pounds to 8,800 pounds and upgrading the centrifuges from the older IR-1 model to the more powerful IR-6. Also read: Trump's Israel-driven transactional politics

The new law passed by the Iranian parliament in December also makes it mandatory for the Iranian government to prohibit the entry of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors after February 21 if the European Union does not by then lift sanctions on Iran and allow it to sell its oil. Iran’s Foreign Minister revealed that his country had “significantly increased its nuclear capabilities since May 2019”. Zarif said that this was, however, “done in full conformity with paragraph 36 of the nuclear agreement”, which allows Iran to “cease performing its commitments” under the deal if another signatory also ceases to fulfil its commitment.

Iran has called on the Biden administration to unconditionally lift all sanctions in order for the nuclear deal to be salvaged. The Iranian government also wants all parties to the deal to fulfil the commitments they made in the agreement. When the Trump administration was applying its “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, the E.U. did nothing substantial to help the Iranian government in its hour of need. (Germany, France and the United Kingdom are signatories to the deal.) Iran found it difficult even to import items needed to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic which has hit the country very hard.

Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President, in a speech delivered in the third week of January, said that the “ball is now in Washington’s court”. He added that if the Biden administration appended its signature again to the deal, Iran would immediately do the same. Rouhani pointed out that all the signatories of the JCPOA are bound by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which underpins the nuclear deal. “If they effectively implement their commitments, they must know that there will be effective implementation of commitments on this side,” Rouhani said.

Zarif, who played a key role in negotiating the nuclear deal along with John Kerry, former Secretary of State, bluntly stated that there was no way Iran would return to the deal if the U.S. and the E.U. imposed new conditions. He reminded the Biden administration and the European powers that when the nuclear deal was painstakingly negotiated, “Iran’s defence and regional policies were not up for discussion, because the West was not prepared to abandon its interferences in the region”.

The Western nations were not ready to limit “their lucrative arms sales”, which fuelled conflict and drained the resources of the region. Saudi Arabia is the biggest arms buyer in the world. The UAE, with a population of 1.5 million, is the eighth largest buyer. Zarif said the U.S. cannot now say that “what is mine, is mine. What’s yours is negotiable”.

Russia and France

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, suggested that the Biden administration take the first step of lifting sanctions on Iran if it was really keen on rescuing the nuclear deal. Lavrov said that Russia and Iran were on the same page on the issue.

But France took a stance supportive of the U.S. position. A statement from the French President’s office said that Iran should first comply with the terms of the accord before it asks the U.S. to lift sanctions. “If they are serious about negotiations and want to obtain a new commitment from all the participants of the JCPOA, first they must refrain from further provocations and second they must respect what they are not respecting,” a French official said. France is now also demanding the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the negotiations. Iran wasted no time in rejecting the proposal and advised France to desist from supplying arms to the Gulf monarchies. Western arms sales to the region resulted in destruction and bloodshed. The Saudi-led war in Yemen itself has resulted in more than 100,000 civilian deaths and the near-total devastation of the country.

Israel, emboldened after getting its wish list fulfilled under the Trump administration, has now virtually warned the Biden administration that it will launch a military attack on Iran if the U.S. re-enters the nuclear deal. Senior Israeli Cabinet Ministers have said that the government will not accept a new nuclear deal or the continued Iranian presence in the region. Tzachi Hanegbi, a Cabinet member and close confidante of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, warned that Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear sites if the U.S. signed the nuclear deal again.

Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s Army chief, said in the last week of January that the country was revising attack plans against Iran. He said: “A return to the 2015 nuclear agreement or even a similar accord with several improvements is bad and wrong from an operational and strategic point of view.” Also read: Trump's pardon of Iraq massacre mercenaries

To make sure that the U.S. got the message, Netanyahu said the Army chief’s views on Iran reflected his own. But many top Israeli officials said that it was imprudent on the Israeli government’s part to pressure the Biden administration so openly and that too at the beginning of its term. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted highly placed government sources as saying: “The Americans will sign the agreement with Iran in any case, with us or without us. Despite the declarations it is not likely that we will act alone against Iran after the agreement.”

Senior Iranian officials have dismissed the Israeli threats as “psychological warfare” aimed at preventing the U.S. from living up to its commitments on the nuclear deal. Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., said that Israel’s threats against Iran were meant to draw international attention away from its huge nuclear arsenal and cover up the fact that it poses a threat to stability of the region.

Reacting to the Israel Army chief’s war threats, Hossein Dehqan, a military adviser to Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Israel would not dare to “fire a bullet” against his country. “Iran’s doctrine is defensive but it is based on severe punishment for the aggressor. Do not rush for annihilation,” he warned.

Abolfazl Shekarchi, the spokesman for the Iranian armed forces, warned Israel against making any “foolish” moves, saying that the “Zionists will face a reaction that will destroy Tel Aviv and hasten the end of their regime”. He also reminded the international community that the Supreme Leader had issued a “fatwa” forbidding his country from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran’s civilian nuclear programme has been subjected to the most intense scrutiny by the IAEA.

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