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‘Tragic mistake’: Top Biden advisor laments Trump withdrawal from Iran nuclear pact
Five years after Trump quit the JCPOA, efforts to revive it have given way to obituaries. But it is not entirely clear yet what the United States sees as the path forward.
More than two years after the Biden administration tried unsuccessfully to revive the Iran nuclear deal, the top Biden White House foreign policy advisor called Trump’s decision to quit the deal five years ago a tragic mistake.
But with efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a prolonged standstill, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan suggested that near term, the United States was communicating warnings to Iran to stay within certain nuclear limits, while indicating that in the longer term, it seeks a diplomatic deal to put Iran’s nuclear program back in the box.
“We are…engaging Iran diplomatically regarding its nuclear program, and we continue to believe that it was a tragic mistake to leave the deal with nothing at all to replace it,” Sullivan said in remarks to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Soref Symposium on May 4. “But we have made clear to Iran that it can never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
“We will continue to send a clear message about the costs and consequences of going too far, while at the same time continuing to seek the possibility of a diplomatically brokered outcome that puts Iran’s nuclear program back in the box,” Sullivan said.
“We are going to continue to take action to, yes, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and then to seek a diplomatic solution that puts this on a long-term pathway of stability,” Sullivan said.
In the absence of near-term prospects to revive the nuclear pact, there have been some signs in recent weeks of willingness by Iran to take steps to reduce international alarm over its nuclear advances.
A European diplomat said today (May 8) that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been able to install some of the cameras at Iran nuclear installations that Iran had removed last summer.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made reference to progress in implementing a recent IAEA-Iran agreement in a readout of a phone call he held today with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
“We also discussed Iran-IAEA cooperation, which gained momentum recently,” Borrell tweeted in his readout of the call. “I stressed that Iran must continue this, end support to Russia’s war against UA, and stop instrumentalising EU nationals.”
(Borrell said he also conveyed his strong condemnation of Iran’s execution over the weekend of a Swedish-Iranian dual national, Habib Chaab, and warned Iran not to execute German-Iranian dual national, Jamshid Sharmad.)
“Iran is serious policy is the settlement of problems with the (International Atomic Energy) Agency,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said at the ministry’s press conference today, when asked about the installation of IAEA cameras at Iran nuclear sites, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.
Though Sullivan did not make any such details explicit, there are growing signs that the United States and Europeans have conveyed to Iran the information that Israel would see a decision by Iran to conduct 90%, weapons-grade uranium enrichment as a potential trigger for military action.
Israel’s defense chief warned last week that Iran pursuing 90% enrichment would be a grave mistake that could “ignite the region.”
“Make no mistake, Iran will not be satisfied by a single nuclear bomb," Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on a visit to Greece May 4.
"So far, Iran has gained material enriched to 20% and 60% for five nuclear weapons," Gallant said. "Iranian progress, enrichment to 90%, would be a grave mistake on Iran's part and could ignite the region."
Diplomats from the three European (E3) parties to the JCPOA, the UK, France and Germany, met with Iran’s nuclear negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani in Oslo, Norway in late March. While Iran portrayed the meeting as a negotiation, E3 ministries emphasized that the meeting did not constitute a negotiation, saying rather that certain concerns were conveyed.
“I can confirm that there was a meeting last week between E3 diplomats and the Iranian side,” German Federal Foreign Office deputy spokesperson Wagner told journalists at a press conference on March 24. “We have already stated that in the meetings we made clear our concerns and positions in light of the Iranian escalation in many dossiers, in particular also the Iranian escalation in the nuclear dossier, and that it was explicitly not about negotiations on the JCPOA.”
“As we’ve pointed out here many times, there are no negotiations on the JCPOA right now,” the German official added.
Sullivan, in his remarks to WINEP last week, said among the messages communicated to Iran was U.S. recognition of “Israel’s freedom of action.”
“We have made clear to Iran that it can never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Sullivan said. “As President Biden has repeatedly reaffirmed, he will take the actions that are necessary to stand by this statement, including by recognizing Israel’s freedom of action.”
Western policy to Iran adrift
Though Sullivan suggested US policy was focused on deterring Iran from crossing the threshold to make nuclear weapons in the near term, and obtaining another diplomatic deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in the longer term, some experts said they believe both American and European policy to Iran is currently a bit adrift.
“What struck me the most was the strategic confusion of the policy,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told me regarding Sullivan’s remarks at the WINEP symposium. “You could see his discomfort with where we are in this process.”
“The subtext is that…one of the reasons they are not going back into the deal is because of the political costs associated with it,” Vaez said.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around about where we are with the JCPOA right now,” Vaez said. While he put most of the blame on the Trump administration for leaving the deal, he faulted the Biden administration for “squandering an opportunity” to revive the deal early in 2021, while he blamed the Iranians for rejecting a proposal to revive the deal twice last year. Iranian sources have told Vaez that they are now willing to accept the text of the August 15 proposal to revive the deal that they rejected last September 1, he said.
“I think they genuinely recognize that they committed a mistake by not agreeing to the deal,” he said. “It was a classic miscalculation. They now want to go back to the text of that agreement. But it’s the West that no longer wants to resort to JCPOA along those lines, simply because of the political cost.”
“I would say that both the US and Europe don’t have a strategy here,” Vaez said. “All they have is a wish, and that wish is for this issue to remain on the back burner until 2025.”
Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, one of the key architects of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, expressed regret today at “the torpedoing of a unique diplomatic achievement,” and said the death of the JCPOA harms both Iranians and Americans.
“With no alternative, US has jeopardized the interests of all—especially Americans and Iranians,” Zarif wrote on Twitter. “The outcome of abandoning shared opportunities in favor of zero-sum delusions.”
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