“Diplomacy is the best way”: Biden, in Israel, calls for diplomacy on Iran
The Iranians “have an opportunity to accept this agreement that’s been laid down,” Biden said July 14. “If they don't, we made it absolutely clear: We will not…allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
US President Joe Biden, speaking on a high profile trip to Israel today, said he prefers to resolve concerns about Iran’s advancing nuclear program diplomatically, and said the United States is waiting for Iran to respond to the terms of a draft deal for reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, but won’t wait forever.
But Biden’s openness to revive the nuclear pact comes as some western negotiators and Iran analysts assess that Iran may be getting cold feet about moving forward with a deal to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief it fears could be yanked away by Biden’s successor, or even after the US midterm elections in November.
America is committed “to ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon,” Biden said in remarks with caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem today (July 14).
“I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome,” Biden said.
“We've laid out for… the leadership of Iran what we're willing to accept in order to get back in the JCPOA,” Biden said. “We're waiting for their response … When that will come, I'm not certain. But we are not going to wait forever.”
The Iranians “have an opportunity to accept this agreement that’s been laid down,” Biden also said. “If they don't, we made it absolutely clear: We will not… allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Iran had been complying with the JCPOA for more than two years, when then-US President Trump quit it in 2018 and re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran’s banking and energy sectors. Iran, in response, has been progressively exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits to protest the lack of sanctions relief it was receiving.
Biden yesterday called Trump’s decision to quit the deal--partly with encouragement from then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--“a gigantic mistake.”
“They’re closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before,” Biden said in an interview with Israel Channel 12 news anchor Yonit Levi aired July 13.
While Biden and US officials said they are giving Iran some more time to decide if it wants to move forward with a draft agreement to revive the nuclear pact that has been basically done since March, some western diplomats involved in the negotiations as well as some Iran experts increasingly do not see Iranian will to move forward, even as Iranian officials are still making positive noises about prospects for meeting to discuss it.
“There are continuous exchanges but at the same time, there is not significant movement to close the agreement on the Iran side,” a European diplomat involved in the talks, speaking not for attribution, told me today.
“At this point, there is unfortunately nothing which could inject real optimism,” the European diplomat said last week. “I fear that at this point it is very difficult.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, speaking on a trip to Italy this week, suggested Iran had proposed postponing the issue of removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from a US terror black list, the issue which had seemed to prevent an agreement from being finalized last spring. “But we must make sure that Iranian companies enjoy the economic benefits and their share in the JCPOA,” the Iranian diplomat was cited by Italy’s La Repubblica July 13, according to Tehran Times’ journalist Saeed Azimi.
But asked if there were signs of substantive movement from the Iranians reflected in the Iranian diplomat’s reported comments, or it was just rhetorical blah blah, the European diplomat said: “blah blah.”
Longtime Iran expert close to the talks Ali Vaez expressed a similar sense of growing pessimism that the Iranian leadership has the political will to move forward.
“To be very honest with you, I'm starting to think that the deal is no longer possible,” Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview. “Simply because there are two major risks for the Iranians that I believe no deal is able to mitigate.”
“One, the fact that if indeed there's a redux of Trump's withdrawal from the agreements [after the next US presidential election] in 2025, the Iranian hardliners are now in complete control, and will have no one to blame,” Vaez said.
Secondly, “there's no one within the [Iranian] system who wants to shoulder that risk and responsibility,” Vaez said. “There's also an economic risk, because the Iranians believe that every time the sanctions are snapped back, the setback for their economy is more damaging.”
A senior US diplomat noted that Biden repeated his strong support for reviving the nuclear deal and diplomacy with Iran while standing with Israeli leaders who have expressed opposition to it.
“While much of the press focus was on his reference to the use of force, it was at least equally significant that, in Israel, in the presence of a Prime Minister who vocally opposed the JCPOA, the President reiterated his strong support for diplomacy and for a return to the deal,” the American diplomat said.
“Our position in that respect is clear,” the US diplomat said. “What is less clear is whether Iran has decided it is prepared to agree to a mutual return to compliance with the deal under the terms that the EU (not the US) has proposed.”
Recent Iranian excessive demands for reviving JCPOA may be delay tactic
Iranian leaders are raising excessive demands for reviving the JCPOA including in EU-mediated indirect talks with the US in Doha, Qatar in late June as a delay tactic, suggested Iranian political science professor Mahmood Sariolghalam.
“Why does Iran continue to raise impractical demands in…JCPOA negotiations? The most plausible reason is that it is pursuing a policy of deliberate protraction,” Sarioghalam wrote in a paper published by the Middle East Institute on July 11. “Through this stalemated process, Iran will continue to hold the United States responsible for the resulting impasse. During a period of political uncertainty in Washington and when facing the prospects of limited short-term economic relief, closer Arab-Israeli alignment, and the inevitable domestic challenges associated with political transition, Iran likely sees retaining its nuclear deterrence and regional influence as a reliable foreign policy strategy to ensure the status quo.”
Iran’s hardline leadership, anticipating transition in the coming years from the era of Iran’s 83 year old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is trying to preserve distance from the West, hold on to its nuclear leverage as a deterrent capability, and maintain its regional influence, he wrote.
But with “current shrinking financial resources,…domestic challenges may gradually overwhelm deterrence aims and efforts,” Sariolghalam wrote.
Ryan Costello, with the National Iranian American Council, said Iran’s reportedly excessive demands at the Doha talks last month may reflect Iranian wariness about agreeing to a deal before US midterm elections this fall it fears could result in Republican Congressional majorities that try to sink the deal.
“Iran might not be as worried about [the next US Presidential elections in] 2024 as what happens after the midterms,” he said. “It looks at Biden’s poll numbers and strident Republican opposition [to the JCPOA]. It doesn’t want to sign up for a deal and then have a major midterm flip.”
Sanctions may also be useful for authoritarian systems like Iran’s in maintaining internal repression, Costello said.
“Authoritarian systems, when sanctions are in place, it is actually somewhat easier to keep a lid through repression on people’s desires, because everyone is just focused on survival,” Costello said.
Iran’s authoritarian leaders may be “less inclined to believe sanctions relief is a necessary thing,” he said. “It’s probably a calculation that a growing middle class brings increased demands for liberalization of the system, for more accountability, less corruption, more human rights.”
Since Trump quit the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed “maximum pressure” on Iran, millions of Iranians “have fallen out of the middle class into poverty,” Costello said. “And repression has gotten worse internally.”
Iranian authorities’ arrests this month of three Iranian filmmakers, among other actions, are a “signal that there will not be toleration of dissent,” he said. It’s “a double tragedy.”
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