A series of back-and-forth retaliatory moves and antagonistic statements between Washington and Tehran are putting the Biden administration’s plans for a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in greater danger every day.
“You cannot act with impunity. Be careful,” President Joe Biden told reporters on Friday, describing his message to Iran after he ordered airstrikes on buildings in eastern Syria that the Pentagon said were being targeted. used by Iranian-backed militias.
The strikes were in retaliation for a Feb. 15 attack in which rockets hit the Erbil international airport in Iraq, which is home to coalition military forces. The attack, which Western and Iraqi officials attribute to Iranian-backed militias, killed a contractor for the US-led coalition and wounded several others, including a US service member. Iran rejects the accusations of its involvement.
None of this bodes well for what the Biden administration considers a foreign policy priority: a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, which was written under the Obama administration with various world powers and lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbing its nuclear program.
The deal has nearly collapsed since the Trump administration unilaterally abandoned it in 2018 and reimposed radical sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy.
Whether or when the deal can be reactivated is a fundamental question for Biden’s team’s foreign policy and legacy in the Middle East. Former US diplomat Joseph Westphal, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Obama’s second term, does not believe this will happen anytime soon.
“I don’t think we’ll see a deal” this year, Westphal told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Monday. “I think we can see the start of negotiations to reach an agreement. The end of the year is fast approaching. And I think these things take a long time.”
An invitation and a rejection
In early February, Biden’s team took an important step by offering to initiate informal negotiations with Tehran, marking the first diplomatic rapprochement by the United States in more than four years. Iran’s leadership over the weekend declined the invitation.
Attempting some kind of rapprochement is difficult for Biden. He faces substantial internal opposition over the Iran deal and does not want to appear “soft” on the country’s regime, especially at a time when Iran is increasing its uranium enrichment and storage in violation of the deal, moves that bring it closer to ability to make bombs.
Tehran insists this is in response to US sanctions and that its actions can be reversed if the sanctions are lifted first; Biden, meanwhile, says it will only lift economic sanctions if Tehran retracts its violations. So the two of them are at a dead end.
Tehran last week limited the UN nuclear watchdog’s access to its nuclear activities, putting the deal in further jeopardy, though inspectors still retain some access. And on Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind an attack on one of its tankers off the coast of Oman on Friday. Iran denies any involvement.
Attempts to level the playing field
Still, not everyone believes that a return to the JCPOA cannot happen this year. Ayham Kamel, head of the Middle East practice at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, sees the current escalations as an attempt to level the playing field.
“There is no easy path for JCPOA plus. I think whatever is happening in the region right now, some of the escalation in Iraq, some of the escalation in Iran, even the Iranians rejecting the first offer of direct negotiations. with the US that’s all pre-negotiation negotiation, “Kamel said.
“It’s an effort to really balance the field, the Iranians are trying to get the most out of this process. The JCPOA will happen, re-entry will happen sometime this year in my opinion, but it will be difficult.”
Kamel added that the Iranian leadership itself remains divided on returning to the deal as it weighs the need for economic relief from sanctions and its opposition to intimidating US demands.
“The supreme leader wants a deal, but many in the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) do not necessarily want a weak negotiation to start,” he said, referring to Iran’s powerful and ideological parallel military force. “They want the negotiations to start from a solid position, and regional escalation is part of that.”
Others believe that a return to the deal is inevitable simply because Iran’s economy has been devastated by the sanctions. Their currency is in free fall, their exports have been drastically reduced, and Iranians are struggling to buy food and medicine.
“I think ultimately a deal is possible,” Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told CNBC earlier this month, “because the Iranians need money.”