Analysis: Biden offers olive branch as Iran curtails inspections

Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a carefully choreographed series of steps, the Biden administration has edged towards re-engaging with Iran – nearly three years after Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 accord which is designed to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions. The moves came as Iran partially pulled back from a threat to this week halt international inspectors’ access to the country.

What happened 

  • In a speech to the Munich Security Conference on Friday laying out his foreign policy priorities, Joe Biden announced: “We’re prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear programme.” The P5+1 – the US, UK, France, Russia and China plus Germany – negotiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.
  • But – in keeping with his oft-repeated campaign pledge to make any revived deal with Iran “stronger and longer” – the president also vowed: “We must also address Iran’s destabilising activities across the Middle East, and we’re going to work in close cooperation with our European and other partners as we proceed.”
  • Biden’s remarks came a day after the State Department said it would accept an invitation from the EU to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to “discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear programme”. The EU then issued an invitation to an “informal” meeting – the first America will have attended since 2018 – and a joint statement released by the US, Britain, France and Germany stated: “If Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.”
  • “I think what is among the most significant outcomes was [that it’s] probably the first time in a long time that the US and its E3 allies were able to come together and produce a joint statement, a unified vision on how to address the Iran nuclear issue,” a senior US state department official said.
  • At the UN, the US also formally notified the Security Council that it was withdrawing the Trump administration’s attempt to invoke the “snapback” mechanism last September which would have seen all UN sanctions on Iran, which were slowly lifted after 2015, reimposed. Isolated and without allies, the US’ efforts proved ultimately fruitless, despite Trump having slapped a series of crushing American sanctions on the Islamic republic. The Biden administration also announced it was easing tight restrictions on the movement of Iranian diplomats posted to the UN in New York.

Iran unimpressed

Iran issued a grudging response to Biden’s olive branch. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said that the new talks were not a “done deal”, accused the European states involved of “sophistry” and demanded that the US “unconditionally and effectively lift all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labelled by Trump”. Despite its own escalating and multiple violations of the deal – which has seen Iran breach limits on its stockpile of uranium and deploy advanced centrifuges banned by the deal, as well as enriching uranium to 20 percent, way beyond the 3.67 percent stipulated by the JPCOA – Javid is also calling for compensation from the US for the alleged £710bn economic damage inflicted by Trump’s sanctions. On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said the country would “not back down” on the nuclear issue, threatened to increase uranium enrichment to 60 percent and insisted that, while it did not want nuclear weapons, other states – including “the Zionist clown” – wouldn’t be able to stop it.

Inspections – but not as we know them

This week also sees a new Iranian law, passed by the country’s parliament in December, come into effect which seeks to severely limit inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

  • Wide-ranging access to Iran for the nuclear watchdog is part of the JCPOA’s additional protocol. The Iranian law was designed to reduce that cooperation if the US hadn’t lifted all sanctions by this week.
  • A last-minute, three-month stop-gap deal with the IAEA head Rafael Grossi struck this weekend will allow international inspectors to continue their work.
  • However, Grossi admitted that the inspectors will have “less access” and that there would be “things we lose”, while insisting that they will still be able to undertake “the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work”.
  • Iranian officials have said that inspectors will only have 70 percent of the access they were previously granted by Tehran. Crucially, images from thousands of cameras installed at nuclear sites will not be passed to the IAEA. Iran’s atomic energy agency says it will retain the footage for three months – if the US completely lifts sanctions during this period, the information will be passed to the IAEA, otherwise it will be deleted.

Bad faith actor

Tehran’s belligerent attitude towards Biden was also apparent as it upped the activities of its proxy armies in Iraq last week. An Iranian-backed Shiite militia, most likely Asaib al-Haq, launched a rocket attack on a US base in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing a contractor and injuring five others, including an American soldier. As Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued: “The Biden administration should privately signal that sanctions relief and negotiations are conditional upon a cessation of new outrages by Iran-backed militias.” Reports at the end of last week also indicated that the IAEA found uranium particles at two Iranian nuclear sites which Tehran spent seven months attempting to block inspectors’ access two. The sites have long been inactive but, under the terms of the deal, Iran is still bound to explain evidence of undeclared past activities to the IAEA.

Deal or no deal

The Biden administration’s ultimate goal is not yet entirely clear, however. There are reportedly two broad camps within the administration:

  • The “original dealers” – such as Rob Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran – who want the US to simply return to the JCPOA if Iran returns to compliance.
  • The “new dealers” – such as national security adviser Jake Sullivan – who incline towards seeking a bigger deal immediately, which also addresses other aspects of Iranian misbehaviour, including its ballistic missile programme and support for terror groups and proxy armies.
  • There is also a third-way option – an interim agreement designed to build confidence by which Biden offers Iran some limited sanctions relief in return for Tehran dialling back its post-2018 violations.

Where Labour stands

Over the weekend, Keir Starmer branded Iran “a very significant threat”, while shadow Middle East minister Wayne David detailed Labour’s approach to the JCPOA last month, calling for a strengthened inspections regime and suggesting the current deal fails to “address all the concerns raised by Iran’s activities”.

What Israel wants

Benjamin Netanyahu has been a long-standing critic of the nuclear deal, but Israel’s position is more nuanced than the prime minister’s rhetoric sometimes suggests and, in some regards, echoes Biden’s “stronger but longer” pledge:

  • In a statement last week, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Israel remains committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and its position on the nuclear agreement has not changed. Israel believes that going back to the old agreement will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal. Israel is in close contact with the United States on this matter.”
  • However, the head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, is reported by Israeli media to have laid out a series of requests to the Biden administration for its negotiations with Tehran, including stopping Iran’s uranium enrichment and its production and testing of advanced centrifuges; preventing its support for proxy terror groups in the region, primarily Hezbollah, and ending its terror activity worldwide against Israeli targets; stopping Iranian entrenchment in Iraq, Turkey and Yemen; allowing full access to inspectors from the IAEA to all Iranian nuclear sites; and extending the “sunset clause” in the current deal which begins to lift restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme from 2025.
  • In response to Biden’s moves, Labor leader Merav Michaeli said: “Labor supports an improved agreement to prevent Iran’s nuclear project and its other dangerous plans. Israel must be a party to the process so it meets its security requirements. Netanyahu’s resounding failure on the Iranian issue and cancelling the previous agreement brought us closer to the Iranian bomb and Iran’s military to our border with Syria.”
  • There are also strong indications of support in the Israeli military and intelligence community for the JCPOA. Omer Bar-Lev, a former senior IDF officer and Labor MK, told the Times of Israel at the weekend that, in the lead-up to the 2015 deal, the IDF made clear it viewed the agreement as ultimately beneficial to Israel. “IDF officers said so in real time in a confidential Knesset committee. They gave their professional observations to us, MKs, and I have no doubt that they also expressed it in the professional military forums.”
  • On Tuesday, a group of senior former IDF and Mossad officials released a letter sent to Netanyahu backing Biden’s approach. Commanders for Israel’s Security said it “welcomes the American initiative to get Iran to again transparently follow the guidelines in the JCPOA, as long as it includes an Iranian commitment to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2231” regarding the development of ballistic missiles.

What happens next

The next steps are not wholly in the hands of either Biden or Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. The US president faces strong opposition among congressional Republicans and some hawkish Democrats to rejoining the JCPOA, while Rouhani’s term ends in June with hardliners competing to replace him possibly complicating diplomatic moves.