- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2021

Iran has engaged in “worrying violations” of the 2015 nuclear deal, including uranium enrichment at “a level perilously close to weapons-grade,” according to a prominent international think tank, which argues the incoming Biden administration should respond not by punishing Tehran, but by moving quickly to revive the accord.

The International Crisis Group, headed by a former Obama administration official who helped negotiate the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), said in a report Friday that the incoming administration “should swiftly re-enter the deal, if Iran reverses its JCPOA breaches.”

The report, which is just as likely to be read closely by President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s team as it is to be criticized by U.S. foreign policy hawks, was circulated against a backdrop of fresh provocations by Tehran.

Iranian military forces held exercises Friday involving ballistic missiles that U.S. officials have accused Tehran building up in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that undergirded the 2015 nuclear deal. The drills, reported by Iranian state media, followed recent threats by Tehran to expel United Nations nuclear inspectors from the country if the incoming Biden administration doesn’t quickly remove sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran during the Trump era.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pleaded with the international community last week to unify against that threat amid uncertainty over the future U.S. policy under Mr. Biden. On Friday, with only a few days left before Mr. Biden replaces Mr. Trump in the White House, Mr. Pompeo announced fresh U.S. sanctions targeting several Iranian shipping companies and entities accused of facilitating Tehran’s weapons procurement activities.

The announcement marked the latest in the so-called “maximum pressure” strategy Mr. Trump set in motion in 2018 when he withdrew the United States from the Obama-era nuclear deal. The strategy has featured the unilateral re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, as well as a U.S.-led push to crush Iran’s economy by upholding a global embargo on Iranian crude oil.

Mr. Trump has argued the sanctions would coerce Iran into fresh negotiations with Washington that could result in a new deal addressing not only Tehran’s nuclear activities, but also it’s ballistic missile programs and subversive backing of militants in other Mideast nations — two things that were not resolved by the 2015 deal.

The approach created a rift with other signatories to the deal, including Britain, France and Germany, who have sought, along with China and Russia, to keep the accord alive since 2018. The big question now is whether the incoming Biden administration will keep the re-imposed U.S. sanctions in place or lift them.

The International Crisis Group is calling for the latter, asserting in its report Friday that the Trump administration “insisted that its ‘maximum pressure’ strategy would deliver a superior nuclear agreement.”

“Not only did the coercion fail, but it also reversed the significant non-proliferation gains the agreement had secured and prompted a more aggressive Iranian regional posture,” the report’s executive summary claimed.

Re-entering the deal on the condition that Iran roll back its enrichment activities and its threats to kick out U.N. inspectors, the summary argued, will be the “best way” for the Biden administration to “avoid a nuclear crisis early in its tenure, restore transatlantic cooperation, facilitate the financial dividends the agreement was meant to deliver to the Iranian people and provide a foundation for future negotiations on matters outside the JCPOA’s nuclear portfolio.”

The report argued the Trump administration was incorrect in thinking it could “squeeze greater concessions out of Iran on its nuclear program and also with regard to the other concerns.”

“The economic toll on Iran has been severe — three years of recession in a row – and the deal’s remaining participants have been unable to relieve the pain,” the report’s executive summary said. “But removing the central incentive for Iran’s commitment to its JCPOA obligations led Tehran to slip those bonds, not to acquiesce in tighter ones.”

“In early January, Iran announced the latest in a series of worrying violations, raising uranium enrichment rates to 20 percent, a level perilously close to weapons-grade, and threatening to severely curb international monitoring and verification, the accord’s hall-marks,” it said, adding that the “‘maximum pressure’ era has produced the worst of all worlds: economic stagnation for Iran, mounting international concern about its nuclear program and simmering regional tensions.”

Critics of the original nuclear deal, including most Republicans, say that characterization is off the mark.

“The problem with the rush to reaffirm the old, flawed deal is that it would benefit only one country: Iran,” according to James Carafano, a national security analyst with the Heritage Foundation, and Adam Milstein, the chairman emeritus of the Israeli-American Council.

“The cascading consequences of that decision could destabilize not just the Middle East, but trigger problems around the world,” the two argued in a commentary published earlier this month by The Washington Times.

“The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the deal and slap Iran with severe sanctions has crippled the Iranian economy, decreased its oil production and caused a significant devaluation of the rial,” they wrote. “Tehran is even more desperate now than it was in 2015. It would be a mistake to waste the gains of the outgoing administration.”

The incoming administration is seen to be carefully weighing how to proceed.

International Crisis Group President Robert Malley, a critic of President Trump’s overall foreign policy who served as White House coordinator for the Middle East under President Obama, has argued that if Mr. Biden desires, he should have no problem rejoining the nuclear deal and repealing the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

However, Mr. Malley and Philip Gordon, another former Obama administration official now with the Council on Foreign Relations, asserted in a November New York Times op-ed that the Trump administration “worked resolutely to build a so-called sanctions wall that would deter businesses from trading with Iran even if the United States rejoined the deal, repackaging nuclear-related sanctions as terrorism-related penalties to make it politically costlier for a Democratic administration to remove them.”

“More broadly, the Trump administration seemed to be trying to erode any Iranian faith that an arrangement entered into with the United States would survive America’s political vicissitudes.”

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