Blinken: â€˜Path of Diplomacy is openâ€™
US Secretary of StateÂ Antony BlinkenÂ said this week that the decision is Tehranâ€™s whether to reengage on the Iran nuclear deal.
â€œThe path of diplomacy is open,â€Â he told Judy WoodruffÂ March 3.
The European Union invited all of the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal â€” the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and China â€” to resume talks.
The United States said yes. Iran said no this time, but it may be reconsidering (see below).
â€œWeâ€™ve been very clear that Iran has to come back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, and if it does, weâ€™ll do the same thing,â€ Blinken continued. â€œAnd â€¦ that would involve, if they do it, some sanctions relief.â€
In other words, the United States is ready, in the context of the JCPOA group, to discuss â€œcompliance for complianceâ€ â€” sanctions relief for Iran, once Iran returns to uranium enrichment levels and other protocols as agreed in the JCPOA.
US PresidentÂ Joe Bidenâ€™s approach to Iran has been consistent and straightforward, and so far by the diplomatic book. And it’s paying off.
The first US priority has been to rebuild trust and consensus with its EU partners.Â The Trump administration, in breaking from the JCPOA, had gone it alone on Iran, alienating European allies.
The Biden administration has taken a few shots from critics on both sides on the issue. Some have argued that the administrationÂ should have immediately jumped back into the nuclear deal, ending the Trump administrationâ€™s sanctions, with Iran immediately getting back into compliance.
AÂ more hawkish takeÂ has been that the Biden team, many of whom are Iran deal veterans, may be too quick to cut a deal with Iran, to the detriment of US interests.
Neither criticism hits the mark.
True, those in this administration who were involved in the 2015 Iran deal consider it a signal achievement and stand by it as foundational in addressing Iranâ€™s nuclear weapons potential.
While that viewÂ holds, among the new/old officials who will be dealing again with Iran, there is also an awareness of the many changes over the pastÂ six years.
Wendy Sherman, Biden’s nominee to beÂ deputy secretary of state, who as undersecretary of state for political affairs was the lead US negotiator on the nuclear deal, said at her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 3 that â€œ2021 is not 2015, when the deal was agreed, nor 2016, when it was implemented. The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change.â€
Colin Kahl,Â Bidenâ€™s nominee for undersecretary of defense for political affairs,Â similarly said during his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 4, “I think dynamics in the Middle East have changed. I support the Abraham Accords and I wouldnâ€™t move the embassy â€¦ away from Jerusalem,â€ adding that he backsÂ Israelâ€™s airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, asÂ Jared SzubaÂ reports.
The US-brokered normalization agreements (Abraham Accords) between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and SudanÂ â€”Â in the context of more open Israel-Gulf alignment over a shared concern of Iranian intentions â€” further strengthen the administrationâ€™s diplomatic hand.
Anticipating these changes, Biden said during hisÂ presidential campaignÂ that he will consult US regional partners this time on diplomacy with Iran.Â Hard-liners in Israel had been concerned that Biden would rush back into the Iran deal.Â At least so far,Â those concerns seem overblown. The US-Israel relationship under Biden is rock solid.Â Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far steered a more pragmatic approach in dealing with both the United States and Iran, including in his measured response to an attack on an Israeli tanker in the Gulf of Oman, which Israel has blamed on Iran, asÂ Ben CaspitÂ reports.
Deterrence also part of the plan
The Biden administration itself has also not shied away from confronting Iran with force, and will likely continue to do so if nuclear diplomacy stalls, and probably even as it resumes.
IranÂ doesnâ€™t take a holiday from its policies in Iraq, Syria, LebanonÂ and the Gulf. The Islamic Republic is likely to continue to challenge and probe the resolve of the United States and its partners. And the United States will respond.Â
This week, US warplanes struck Iran-backed targets in Syria on the Iraq-Syria border, in retaliation for rocket attacks presumed to have been carried out by Iran-backed militias on al-Asad air base and Erbil International Airport in Iraq, asÂ Szuba reportsÂ here.
The attacks in Syria were criticized by some members of Congress and byÂ Donald Trump Jr., the son of former US PresidentÂ Donald Trump, asÂ Adam LucenteÂ reports.
Despite a recalibration of US policy toward Saudi Arabia, including sanctions against Saudis implicated in the killing of journalistÂ Jamal Khashoggi, asÂ Elizabeth HagedornÂ reports, the United States remains committed to theÂ US-Saudi military-military relationshipÂ in dealing with the threat from Iran and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) forces in Yemen.
The Biden administration has madeÂ ending the war in YemenÂ a top priority.
Rezai:Â â€˜Clear signalâ€™ can lead to talks
In a potential openingÂ for renewed nuclear diplomacy, Mohsen Rezai, head of Iranâ€™s Expediency Council and former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Iran may be willing to reengage on talks if the US sends a “clear signal”Â that US sanctions “would be lifted in less than one year.”
In an interview with the Financial Times,Â Rezai added that “we have to see every month during the talks that some sanctions which are of urgency to us are being liftedâ€¦for instance, sanctions on financial transactions and restrictions that European banks have imposed should be lifted in the first month. Oil exports are also among our top priorities.â€
2020 was Iranâ€™sÂ third straight yearÂ of negative economic growth.
Rezaiâ€™s message is a diplomatic flare and gives some cover for Iranian PresidentÂ Hassan Rouhani,Â who told the Economic Cooperation Organization that “Iran will reciprocate action by actionâ€¦the return path to the JCPOA is straightforward, and if the US government is determined to return, there is no need for negotiations,”Â in addition to noting thatÂ “nothing will be added or removed from the JCPOA; it is a fixed text and we will not have a new negotiation within the framework of the JCPOA.”
Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, responding to Rezaiâ€™s comments, tweeted that he will “shortly present our constructive plan of action â€“ through proper diplomatic channels.”
Rouhaniâ€™s missing coattails in Iranâ€™s elections
Rezaiâ€™s statement could give Rouhani space to broker an interim deal as a kind of bridge to keep diplomacy going during the election season and when a new government takes over after the June elections.
Rouhani canâ€™t run for a second term, and his political legacy is complicated. The Iran nuclear deal was considered a success for him and for Iran, until the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018 and imposed sanctions thatÂ have devastated Iranâ€™s economy at a time of falling oil prices and subsequently the coronavirus pandemic.
The economic problems, compounded by systemic corruption, have been blamed on Rouhani, and have been used by hard-liners to undermine Rouhani and his Reformist coalition and retake Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Majles, as the parliament there is known. Parliamentary elections last year were a disaster for Rouhani and Reformists. Hard-liners â€” or Principlists â€” now controlÂ 220 of the 290 seats;Â Reformists hold only 22 seats.
Sabaz NazariÂ explains that the Rouhani-Reformist coalition was never a perfect fit.
â€œWidely believed to be a pragmatic, moderate figure, Rouhani has never called himself a member of the Reformist camp,â€ Nazari writes. â€œAnd despite the unequivocal support he received from Reformists, the Iranian president appears to have all but disappointed them by his refusal to grant them top ministerial positions.â€
â€œThe challenges faced by the Reformists are many, from diminishing popularity to the suppression at the hands ofÂ powerful hard-liners,â€ Nazari adds. â€œAmid all that, the Reform movement has yet to come up with a name that could truly represent it and hold a chance to push aside the powerful hard-liners.â€
Rezai’s diplomatic flare, and Zarifâ€™s intention to shortly submit a “plan of action,”Â signals there still may be room for some creative choreography or interim steps for nuclear diplomacy with Rouhani, asÂ we described hereÂ in January. The fate of the JCPOA, and the potential for more expansive negotiations with Iran, will ultimately depend, however, on who replaces Rouhani. The United States canâ€™t dictate or foresee the outcome of those elections. By reinforcing the US-EU alignment on Iran, and engaging US regional partners, the US diplomatic hand is only getting stronger.