President Biden is coming under pressure to deliver on his campaign pledge to re-engage with Iran as Tehran pushes a deadline for Washington to lift Trump-era sanctions.
The president has said he is prepared to rejoin the 2015 deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to constrain Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon, so long as Tehran reverses course on its uranium enrichment.
Iran has signaled a willingness to do just that, but it’s pressuring the Biden administration to make the first move by lifting the sanctions imposed by former President Trump when he withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Iran’s parliament has set a Feb. 21 deadline for European signatories to the JCPOA to ease restrictions on the country’s banking and oil industries that are under pressure from Trump’s sanctions. If that deadline is not met, Tehran has vowed to end access for UN nuclear inspectors and further increase uranium enrichment.
“If the new administration does not meet its obligations and remove sanctions in short order, it will destroy the possibility for engagement within the nuclear agreement,” Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht-Ravanchi wrote in The New York Times on Wednesday.
The Biden administration has said it views engagement with Iran over the nuclear issue as an urgent priority, even though critics have argued loudly that any rapprochement poses a critical threat to the U.S. and its regional allies.
“From our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with, what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday.
Biden’s goal is to negotiate a “longer and stronger” deal once both the U.S. and Iran are back in the Obama-era agreement. Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he views those conversations as very far down the line.
“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 back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So we’re not there yet, to say the least,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday.
Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director with the International Crisis Group, said the Biden administration’s remarks on timelines appear vague, leaving open possibilities for both sides to quickly take steps toward negotiations.
Biden could do that by issuing an executive order, Vaez said, to revoke Trump’s 2018 withdrawal and direct the Treasury and State departments to review Iranian sanctions but not lift them immediately.
“My guess is that that executive order would prompt a similar political directive on the side of the Iranians,” Vaez said, potentially removing the looming Feb. 21 deadline and creating an opening for negotiations.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that this ‘who goes first’ fallacy is not going to be an insurmountable obstacle because there is real political will to revive the JCPOA as soon as possible on both sides.”
Yet critics of Biden’s approach are firmly opposed to the JCPOA in general, and reject the idea that managing Iran’s nuclear ambitions will allow room for addressing its other malign activity, like its missile program, human rights abuses, support for terrorism and funding of proxy-fighting forces.
“Biden’s Iran strategy is a work in progress,” Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy, said in an email.
“But his commitment to go back to the JCPOA is creating extreme anxiety from U.S. allies in Iranian missile range and Americans on both sides of the aisle who worry that there will be no JCPOA 2.0 when the administration gives up most of its leverage by lifting the most powerful sanctions.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “mistake” to return to the JCPOA, and Israel’s top general, Lt-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has signaled the military is preparing a wide variety of possible operations against Iran.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian military installations in Syria and is suspected of being behind the November assassination in Iran of a top nuclear scientist and the assasination of a senior Al Qaeda leader in Tehran in August.
Republicans in Congress opposed to Biden’s push to reenter the JCPOA are focusing their criticism on the president’s appointment of Robert Malley as U.S. special envoy for Iran. Malley was the lead negotiator for the 2015 nuclear agreement and most recently served as president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) accused Malley of having “a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime and animus towards Israel” in a tweet, with Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Greg Steube (R-Fla.) echoing that sentiment.
And a group of former American hostages held in Iran and Iranian-American activists further criticized Malley as prioritizing dialogue with Tehran instead of meaningfully engaging with Iranian human rights activists.
Wang Xiyue, the Chinese-American graduate student who was held for three years in Iran’s Evin Prison, voiced his opposition to Malley last week in a letter to the Biden administration organized by the National Union for Democracy in Iran, an advocacy and lobbying group that argues for a democratic Iran.
“My opposition to the appointment is not personal. I respect Mr. Malley’s distinguished career but it’s just in terms of policy continuation and maintaining U.S. leverage over our opponents,” Wang said.
Malley’s supporters are defending his career experience and character, criticizing the attacks as an effort to derail Biden’s Iran strategy in general.
“This is someone who can actually get things done and many of the critics don’t want to see things done. They’re not looking for a better deal, they’re looking for no deal,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank that advocates for diplomatic engagement over military intervention.
Vaez, who served as a senior adviser to Malley at the International Crisis Group, argued the Biden administration’s approach is about reducing risk.