China, Russia and European nations seeking to salvage the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran said Monday that they would welcome a U.S. return to the accord, but President Trump’s escalation of pressure on the Iranian regime during his final weeks in office could hobble the incoming Biden administration’s pursuit of diplomacy with Tehran.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden has signaled an eagerness to work toward rejuvenating the 2015 agreement, but the Trump administration is doubling down with a campaign that has choked Iran’s economy over the past four years and contained Iranian aggression with regular shows of U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf.
The Navy on Monday sailed the nuclear-powered submarine USS Georgia through the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz. It even took the unusual step of publicly declaring that the vessel can carry “154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles” and could transport “66 Special Operations Forces.”
The USS Georgia was accompanied by the missile cruisers USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea.
“As an inherently flexible maneuver force, capable of supporting routine and contingency operations, Georgia’s presence demonstrates the United States’ commitment to regional partners and maritime security with a full spectrum of capabilities to remain ready to defend against any threat at any time,” the Navy’s 5th Fleet said in a statement, marking a rare occasion in which the U.S. military detailed the movements of a nuclear submarine.
The U.S. sent the unmistakable warning to Tehran just a day after administration officials blamed Iran-backed militias for a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad.
After a period of searing escalation early this year, tensions with Iran are rising again after the revelation that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated near Tehran. Iran’s leaders blamed Israel and the U.S. for the machine gun attack.
Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of an American airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, an incident that brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of all-out war. There are concerns in American national security circles that Iran may launch a wave of attacks on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death.
With that as a backdrop, Mr. Biden and his incoming foreign policy team have signaled a desire to dial back the confrontational posture toward Iran that has been characteristic of the Trump era.
It remains to be seen whether such a dialing-back will include the extension of olive branches to Tehran. U.S. policy hawks have spent recent weeks calling on the incoming administration to avoid any rush to ease sanctions that Mr. Trump has rebuilt against Tehran since pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear deal in 2018.
Although there are logistical and legal questions about what a potential U.S. re-entry into the nuclear deal might entail, Mr. Biden has suggested that Washington will seek a diplomatic arrangement that offers some form of sanctions relief in exchange for new nuclear enrichment limitation guarantees from Iran.
The president-elect has stressed that he won’t allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and will push to negotiate a deal that extends limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities that go beyond the original parameters and deadlines laid out in the 2015 pact, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“In consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program,” Mr. Biden told The New York Times in an interview published this month.
Mr. Biden’s comments on the matter have been welcomed by European powers, as well as the Russian and Chinese governments, whose representatives signed the 2015 nuclear deal.
On Monday, the remaining parties to the deal — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — issued a joint statement agreeing to “positively address” the notion of a U.S. return.
They asserted that the Biden administration has only one chance to reverse Trump-era policies and reembrace the agreement. “We are standing at a crossroads today,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Berlin after a virtual meeting of the JCPOA parties.
“The opportunity that is now being offered — this last window of opportunity — must not be squandered,” he said. “We made that very clear today to Iran in particular.”
But analysts point to some serious geopolitical complications awaiting Mr. Biden. Chief among them is likely opposition to a new Iran deal from key U.S. allies in the region, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials this month suggested that the Biden White House will face strong pushback if it neglects to consult with Riyadh during any negotiations with the Iranians.
The Israelis, too, will surely seek to derail any deal that stops short of requiring the full and permanent dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.
A simple resumption of the existing JCPOA, specialists say, appears difficult given the U.S. exit and the fact that Iran has admitted to breaching its own promises. Critics say a reworked version of the agreement built on the same premise of sanctions relief in exchange for nuclear enrichment limitations by Iran is also unlikely to work.
“Iran will always welcome new diplomacy so long as it comes with billions of dollars in incentives to refill Revolutionary Guards’ coffers,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s one thing to agree to a process when that process brings with it much-needed cash, but no diplomat should be under any illusion Iran joins a process to make amends or reach peace,” Mr. Rubin told The Washington Times on Monday. “The JCPOA was about normalizing Iran’s illegal activities, not ending them. No one in the region believed Obama White House talking points about the agreement’s efficiency, which is why Obama and his team got so ornery when Netanyahu or moderate Arab leaders sought to point out the agreement’s deficiencies.”
Iranian officials have argued that the 2018 U.S. exit essentially nullified much of the JCPOA, therefore giving Tehran the green light to ramp up the enrichment of uranium and other aspects of its nuclear program.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, the international community has largely agreed that Washington forfeited any authority over what a future accord should look like when it exited the original deal, which was negotiated by U.S. officials under President Obama.
Still, the burden does not lie entirely with Washington.
Some foreign officials say Iran must act in good faith if it expects something in return.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who took part in Monday’s virtual meeting, said Iran must abandon all plans to expand its nuclear program outside the limits allowed by the JCPOA.
“I made it absolutely clear Iran must not implement the recently announced expansions to its nuclear program,” he said. “To do so would undermine the opportunities for progress we hope to see in 2021.”