Khamenei signals Iran willingness to seek sanctions relief amid possible Biden return to nuclear pact

‘If the sanctions can be lifted, we should not hesitate for even an hour,’ Iran’s Supreme Leader said.

Diplomats from the countries that oversee implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal met virtually today for the first time since the U.S. election, as President-Elect Joe Biden has said that he would return the United States to the deal if Iran returns to full compliance. The virtual meeting of the seven-party Joint Commission came as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signaled that Iran should seek sanctions relief even as he warned against trusting western powers.

“If the sanctions can be lifted, we should not hesitate for even an hour,” Khamenei said Wednesday (Dec. 16) at a meeting on the approaching one year anniversary of the Trump administration’s killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike. “However, this has been delayed for four years now….”

“If the sanctions can be lifted in a correct, wise, Iranian-Islamic, dignified manner, this should be done,” Khamenei continued, according to a translation of his remarks on his website. “But our main focus should be on neutralizing the sanctions, and the initiative for this is in your hands."

Khamenei’s comments suggest that he is going to hold back Iranian hardliners for now, a United Nations official who works on Iran said, possibly giving an opportunity for the incoming Biden administration and Iran to return to full compliance with the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that President Donald Trump quit in 2018.

“Look, I think from what the Supreme Leader said, he is going to rein in hard-liners who would try to sabotage Iranian efforts to come back into full compliance,” the UN official, speaking not for attribution, told me. But Khamenei also stressed, the UN official noted, that Iran has to be very mistrustful of the other side.

This would seem to be good for the more pro-engagement team of Iran’s own soon-to-be-outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is in the last year of his second term and cannot run again. Iran is due to hold presidential election in June, just five months after Biden is inaugurated.

“I think the main motivation on the part of the Supreme Leader that pushed him to agree to… secret negotiations and to the JCPOA, he wanted the country to be on stable economic footing in the time of transition to his successor,” the UN official said, referring to then-secret US-Iran backchannel talks that took place in 2013 during the Obama administration and helped lead to the diplomatic settlement of the Iran nuclear issue. “That motivation is still there.”

The European Union, which convened the Joint Commission meeting today, issued a relatively cryptic readout, referring to ongoing efforts to preserve the deal and saying the parties would meet at the foreign minister-level next week December 21, again virtually, due to covid-19.

“Participants discussed ongoing work to preserve the JCPOA and how to ensure the full and effective implementation of the agreement by all sides in light of existing challenges,” the EU readout said. “Participants also agreed to hold an informal Ministerial meeting of JCPOA participants on 21 December in virtual format.”

Beyond that the meeting, which had originally been due to take place in person in Vienna, was held by video-conference due to the pandemic, Iran’s execution this week of a dissident journalist cast a pall in advance of the meeting, (as for some did the assassination a week earlier, allegedly by Israel, of an Iranian nuclear scientist). Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian activist and journalist who had been living in exile in France since 2011 and remotely covered anti-government protests in Iran in 2017 on his Telegram channel AmadNews, traveled to Iraq and was reportedly abducted there by Iranian agents in 2019. He was executed by Iran on December 12. France, Germany, the Trump administration, as well as Biden’s incoming national security advisor, all condemned the execution, and Iran summoned the ambassadors of Germany and France to protest their statements.

“Iran’s execution of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who was denied due process and sentenced for exercising his universal rights, is another horrifying human rights violation by the Iranian regime,” Biden’s incoming national security advisor Jake Sullivan wrote in a tweet on Dec. 13. “We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran’s abuses.”

The execution of the journalist is a setback, but should not derail the strategic discussions on the Iran nuclear issue or the interests that underpin them, the UN official said.

While the Europeans have worked to try to preserve the deal in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from it and imposition of the maximum pressure campaign, they have been cautious in welcoming Biden’s expressed willingness to return to it if Iran will return to full compliance, as a first step to try to negotiate a possible follow-on or broader deal. That initial reticence may in part be due to the lack of substantive consultations taking place between the Biden team and foreign powers during the transition.

The three European parties to the JCPOA, the UK, France and Germany, last week implored Iran not to go through with plans to install three new centrifuge cascades at its enrichment facility at Natanz, warning that such a move could jeopardize a diplomatic opening with the incoming U.S. administration.

“If Iran is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps,” the British, French and German governments—sometimes known as the ‘E3’—said in a joint statement on December 7. “Such a move would jeopardise our shared efforts to preserve the JCPOA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US Administration.”

“We welcome the statements by President-elect Biden on the JCPOA and a diplomatic path to address wider concerns with Iran,” the E3 statement continued. “This is in all our interests.”

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden wrote at CNN on Sept. 13, a position he has since reiterated. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

The three European powers would also seek a “nuclear agreement plus,” that additionally addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior, but believe a U.S. demonstration of sanctions relief may be a necessary early step towards getting there, German’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said in an interview earlier this month.

“We have clear expectations of Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile program that threatens the entire region,” Maas told Der Spiegel in an interview on Dec. 4.  “Iran also needs to play a different role in the region.”

“The decisive factor will be whether the U.S. relaxes the economic sanction against Iran,” Maas continued. “Both sides need to take steps towards each other. Time is running out because presidential elections are due to be held in Iran next year.”

With the Europeans in a somewhat cautious ‘wait and see’ mode til Biden is in office, the debate is evolving in Iran about the merits of a possible US-Iran channel once Biden is in office in the context of reaching an understanding on the details involved in a possible return to the multilateral deal, said the UN official.

“I think the Iranian position is evolving…There’s a debate in Tehran,” because they were disappointed in the perceived European cautiousness or reticence, the UN official said. “That means precious time is being wasted, while almost every week, there is a black swan emerging.”

Meantime, a bipartisan group of fifty veteran US diplomats, intelligence and military professionals, including former Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and William Perry, CIA Director John Brennan, ambassadors Ryan Crocker, James Dobbins, and Under Secretaries of State Tom Shannon, Steve Mull and Frank Wisner, this week urged Biden to stick with his expressed intention to swiftly return the United States to the JCPOA if Iran returns to full compliance with the pact.

“U.S. early re-entry to the JCPOA would reverse Iran’s nuclear program and prevent a nuclear weapon—a top national security objective,” the bipartisan group of former US national security officials, the Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, wrote.

It would also “renew the coalition of U.S., Europe, Russia, and China…essential for reducing Iran’s nuclear threat…[and] will be essential participants in shaping a JCPOA follow-on agreement.”

William Luers, a former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia who helped spearhead the statement, said a U.S. return to the JCPOA is a crucial first step to getting the United States back to the table with Iran and the other deal signatories before it could get Iranian buy-in to talks on a follow-on or broader agreement.

“It will take the Iranians time to be comfortable negotiating other issues until they see that the U.S. and other members of the JCPOA are willing to… give them the benefits they think they deserve under JCPOA,” Luers said. “At that point, I think we are clear that anything is on the table for them.”

(Photo collage of the Iranian, EU and British participants in the Joint Commission political directors’ video conference on December 16 tweeted by Mahmoud Movahed.)