The Biden administration came under pressure from all sides Monday in its push to restart nuclear talks with Iran, as leaders in Tehran threatened to dramatically ramp up uranium enrichment programs while officials in China and Israel laid out their own wildly different blueprints for how Washington should handle the tense diplomatic standoff.
The White House extended the first olive branch last week by offering to join multilateral talks with Tehran, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei responded Monday with a fiery declaration that his nation may rapidly expand its nuclear program at a moment’s notice with little regard for American demands. His aggressive stance suggests that the Iranian regime — facing its own backlash from hardliners in parliament who are wary of any engagement with the U.S. — will not offer President Biden an easy diplomatic victory.
“Iran is not pursuing the production of nuclear weapons. Of course, Iran will not stay limited to an enrichment of 20%,” Ayatollah Khamenei told Iranian lawmakers Monday, as quoted by Iranian state-controlled media outlets. “And there is the possibility of increasing enrichment up to 60% in accordance with the country’s needs.”
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed by Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers, limits Iran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67%, though Tehran stopped abiding by that threshold after former President Trump pulled America from the deal in 2018 and Washington reimposed a set of crippling economic sanctions. During the final weeks of the Trump administration, Iranian officials announced they would begin enriching uranium up to 20% at some key facilities.
Increasing to 60% would put the country’s nuclear program just a few steps away from what it needed to make an actual bomb.
The ayatollah’s comments came a day after Iran struck a deal with the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog that limited even further the scope of inspections of suspect Iranian facilities, a key concession of the original 2015 deal. But some Iranian lawmakers demanded that President Hassan Rouhani be legally punished for that agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, underscoring the internal politics complicating the issue on both sides.
Meanwhile, Monday brought yet another rocket attack targeting U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq, the third such attack in just over a week. The latest incident reportedly saw at least three rockets hit Baghdad, including two that fell inside the city’s “Green Zone,” which houses the American embassy complex.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, which did not cause any casualties. The Pentagon said little about the incidents Monday but seemed to suggest it’s possible that Shiite militia groups in Iraq with known ties to Tehran are behind the escalating assaults in Iraq.
“We have seen attacks in the past from Shia-backed militias operating inside Iraq,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday. “It’s difficult to say with certainty … whether there’s a strategic calculation driving this uptick, recent uptick in attacks, or whether this is just a continuation of the sorts of attacks we’ve seen in the past.”
“Clearly these are dangerous attacks,” he said.
Back at home, leading Republicans believe Iran is seeing how far it can push the new Democratic administration in Washington. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, said that last weekend’s rocket attack that targeted a base housing Iraqi and American military personnel clearly was the work of Tehran and a message to the new U.S. president.
“This attack was conducted &/or directed by #Iran. They are testing President Biden. So far he is failing the test,” the Florida Republican tweeted Monday.
Some regional specialists argue that, so far, the White House seems intent on not being distracted by the attacks by Iranian-backed groups and other provocative behavior in favor of pursuing diplomacy — but they say such patience will not last forever.
“At least for now the Biden administration is looking past Iran’s unwise and dangerous temper tantrums,” Nazee Moinian, a scholar with the Middle East Institute, wrote in an analysis Monday. “With the U.S. once again committed to diplomacy, continued Iranian lethal force and nuclear violations will only serve to further isolate Tehran.”
While the administration has rhetorically committed to diplomacy, so far it has taken limited tangible action. Last week, the State Department announced that the U.S. would accept an invitation from the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany, all signatories to the nuclear agreement — and Iran to resume formal diplomatic talks. There has been little movement on making those talks a reality.
The U.S. also announced it was dropping a Trump administration demand that the U.N. “snap back” sanctions on Iran that were eased or lifted under the 2015 agreement.
Washington and Tehran are in a highly public battle of wills over how to coordinate concessions on both sides to get back in compliance with the original accord.
Before the U.S. would reconsider rejoining the JCPOA or crafting another deal to take its place, the administration has stressed that Iran must first come back rein in its uranium enrichment. Iran has countered that Washington must act first by removing economic and financial sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy and frightened investors from other countries from making deals.
Iran isn’t the only one applying pressure: China, one of the signatories of the JCPOA in 2015 and a major energy customer of Iran, said Washington should immediately rejoin the deal.
“China holds that the return of the United States to the JCPOA is the only correct approach to resolve the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Monday. “All parties should act with greater urgency, work together to implement consensus reached at the foreign ministers’ meeting last December, and bring the JCPOA back on track at an early date.”
But the administration also is facing pressure from Israel and Gulf Arab states, who fiercely opposed the JCPOA and say Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region must be resisted.
Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid opposition party, said the worst possible outcome is the reemergence of another “bad deal” like the JCPOA — a deal that a number of senior officials in Mr. Biden’s administration helped negotiate.
No deal at all and the continuation of sanctions, Mr. Lapid said, would be a better outcome.
“Appeasement was never a good idea with the Iranians because they’re the best negotiators, maybe, in the world,” Mr. Lapid said Monday at an online forum hosted by the Brookings Institution. “Iran is a sophisticated country … that is pushing forward a nuclear program for military use because of very deep religious and very dangerous sentiments. So therefore, we’re not discussing good options to begin with. We’re just discussing how to try and limit and prevent a terrible thing from happening.”