Biden himself claims that restoring the Iran nuclear deal is one of his administration’s “main diplomatic goals,” but the moves being made don’t seem to line up with this position.
“Overall, his position remains exactly what it has been, which is that if Iran comes into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same. And then use that as a platform to build a larger and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”
The Biden administration is acting as though they’re just making a reasonable request, but it is important to remember that the sanctions on Iran are killing innocent civilians, and it was the US who broke the deal, not Iran. Granted, that happened under a different administration, but if you were an Iranian official, how willing would you be to re-enter such a deal under such conditions, especially considering how the US has handled these kinds of situations in the past? Our history with Iran itself, and indeed that entire region of the world, gives little reason to assume good intentions on our part.
A look at the people involved gives some clues as to why such an apparent contradiction between the stated goals of the administration and their actions might exist. Writer Gareth Porter points out in The Grayzone that “Biden’s foreign policy team is comprised largely of Obama administration officials,” who “seem to have forgotten how Iran used 20 percent enrichment to get the United States to drop its sanctions” during the earlier administration’s watch. Porter notes that Iran’s persistence led then-Secretary of State John Kerry to give up on a demand “to retain language that would allow the United States to reimpose sanctions deep into the implementation of the agreement.” Porter also warns that the situation has changed, and that there are “serious risks” in the path being pursued:
“In its bid to coerce a state that is fighting for its most basic national rights into submission, the Biden administration has exhibited a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the limits of U.S. power. The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has already prompted Iran to establish military capabilities that it previously lacked.”
The appointment of Rob Malley as special envoy to Tehran could be taken as an encouraging sign, as he has shown himself to be less hawkish than most of Biden’s team. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked Malley specifically to bring in “more hawkish” people to his negotiating team, and Malley himself told Axios in January that although “certain steps would increase the pressure” on the administration to return to the Iran deal, “there comes a point at which more pressure might mean that the Biden administration will change course as well.”
Anyone familiar with Blinken is likely not surprised to see him pushing for more aggression. As Daniel Larison wrote in a post on Responsible Statecraft: “Blinken has agreed with some of the biggest foreign policy mistakes that Biden and Obama made, and he has tended to be more of an interventionist than both of them.”
It should also be mentioned that pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia is likely to be playing a role in the Biden administration’s stance on this issue.
As for Iran, their leadership has made it clear that the “US must lift all sanctions” before they would consider an agreement. Iranian officials have also argued that their actions “were taken within the framework of the deal’s dispute resolution clause,” and that the US should make the first moves to return to the deal, as it was the US who walked away from it.
Lifting the sanctions is not only the right thing to do, it seems like a necessary step if Biden truly wishes to return to the deal, much less build on it.