A series of retaliatory actions and opposing statements between Washington and Tehran set the Biden administration’s plans to return to the nuclear deal for Iran in 2015 with each passing day.
“You can’t go unpunished. Be careful,” President Joe Biden told reporters on Friday, describing his message to Iran after ordering air strikes on buildings in eastern Syria that the Pentagon says are being used by Iran-backed militias.
The strikes were revenge for a February 1
None of this is good for what the Biden administration sees as a foreign policy priority: a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, which was drafted under the Obama administration with several world powers, and lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions. its nuclear program.
The deal nearly collapsed as the Trump administration unilaterally abandoned it in 2018 and again imposed extensive sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy.
Whether or when the deal can be resumed is a critical issue 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 see this happening in the near or even medium term.
“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 beginning of negotiations to reach a deal. The end of the year is coming fast. And I think these things are taking a long time.”
Invitation and refusal
Earlier in February, Biden’s team took a major step by offering to start informal talks with Tehran, signaling the first US diplomatic relationship in more than four years. Over the weekend, Iran’s leadership declined the invitation.
Trying for some rapprochement is difficult for Biden. He faces significant domestic opposition to the deal with Iran and does not want to look “soft” on the country’s regime, especially at a time when Iran is stepping up uranium enrichment and storage in violation of the deal, moves that bring it closer to the ability to make bombs.
Tehran insists that this is in response to US sanctions and that its actions can be reversed if sanctions are lifted first; Biden, meanwhile, says he will lift economic sanctions only if Tehran denies the violations. So the two are at a dead end.
Last week, Tehran restricted the UN nuclear service’s access to its nuclear activities, putting the deal in even greater danger, although inspectors still retain some access. And on Monday, Israeli 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
However, not everyone believes that a return to JCPOA cannot happen this year. Ayham Kamel, head of practice in the Middle East at the Eurasia Group’s political risk advisory service, sees the current escalations as an attempt to level the playing field.
“There is no easy way for JCPOA plus. I think that whatever is happening now in the region – part of the escalation in Iraq, part of the escalation in Iran, even the Iranians reject the first offer of direct talks with the US – I think these are all negotiations before negotiating, “Camel said.
“It’s an effort to really balance the field, the Iranians are trying to get the most out of this process. JCPOA will happen, re-entry will happen at some point this year in my opinion, but it will be difficult.”
Kamel added that the Iranian leadership itself remains divided over the return to the agreement, as it weighs the need for economic relief from sanctions and opposes adherence to US demands.
“The supreme leader wants a deal, but many in the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) do not necessarily want to see a weak start to the talks,” he said, referring to Iran’s powerful and ideologically parallel military force. “They want the negotiations to start from a strong position and regional escalation is part of that.”
Others believe that a return to the deal is inevitable simply because Iran’s economy is so devastated by sanctions. Its currency is in free fall, its exports have declined, and Iranians are struggling to afford food and medicine.
“I think a deal is possible in the end,” Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told CNBC earlier this month, “because Iranians need money.”