As Iran digs its heels, Biden might give away the store
As the Biden administration ramps up its effort to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, all the indications suggest that Tehran has little interest in making the compromises necessary for easing tensions with Washington.
On the contrary, Iran’s recent conduct points to a hardening of Tehran’s position, as it seeks to increase pressure on the Biden administration to make concessions, rather than the other way around. And, to judge by the delicate diplomatic arrangements set in place for this week’s resumption of talks in Vienna, the Iranians are already dictating the terms of the agenda.
Consequently this has raised concerns that US President Joe Biden is about to repeat the same mistakes made by the Obama administration when it helped negotiate the original 2015 deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by making too many concessions to Iran.
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The fact that the JCPOA did not cover other aspects of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme – such as ballistic missiles and detonators, as well as the regime’s refusal to provide adequate explanations for traces of weapons-grade material discovered at numerous nuclear installations – resulted in former US president Donald Trump withdrawing from the agreement in 2018. But since taking office, Mr Biden has made clear his desire for the US to rejoin the JCPOA.
Initially, the new administration suggested that it wanted to take a more robust approach to the negotiations, suggesting that Washington wanted to include other controversial aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities, and not focus solely on the narrow issue of nuclear enrichment.
To this end Mr Biden said he wanted Iran to cease its violations of the JCPOA, including its acceleration of uranium enrichment to 20 per cent in recent months – just below the threshold required for producing weapons-grade material – before he was prepared to re-enter negotiations. In response, Iran insisted that the punitive economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration must first be lifted before talks could resume.
But, as events in Vienna this week made clear, it is the Biden administration – and not Iran – that has been obliged to make the first concessions, suggesting that Mr Biden, like Mr Obama whom he served as vice president, will be prepared to capitulate to Iran’s demands in his desperation to secure a deal.
For a start, Washington has so far made no move to lift sanctions but already made a number of concessions designed to send a signal to Tehran that it wants better relations.
The decision to remove the terrorist designation applied to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which are backed by Iran, was the first gesture. Since then the White House has been accused of helping secure the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets held by South Korea. The funds were released in February to Iran following consultations with the US.
In addition, the White House has been accused of trying to sidestep legally required Congressional approval to funnel more money to Iran and through a new International Monetary Fund programme, "special drawing rights" (SDRs). According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, this would enable Iran to receive an additional $4.5bn, funds that could be used both to strengthen domestic repression and intensify regional adventurism.
By contrast, rather than making any goodwill gestures of its own to Washington, Tehran has persisted with its uncompromising approach on a number of important issues, such as encouraging the Houthis not to engage with the recent Saudi initiative to resume peace talks aimed at ending Yemen’s long-running civil war.
Iran has also adopted a more aggressive stance towards the UN inspection teams responsible for monitoring its nuclear sites – in violation of its obligations under the JCPOA. It has also failed to respond to a request made by Rafael Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for Iran to “come clean about recent findings of undeclared uranium to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement".
Recent reports received by western intelligence indicate Iran has also resumed efforts to conceal key elements of its nuclear programme from the inspection teams.
Some of this equipment is said to be stored in 75 shipping containers regularly moved to different locations in Iran. It includes machinery, pumps and spare parts for centrifuges, the sophisticated machines that can be used to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Materials such as carbon fibre, which can be used in the production of advanced centrifuges, are being stored at secret sites administered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has overall responsibility for Iran’s nuclear programme.
Tehran has persisted with its uncompromising approach on a number of important issues
Iran’s disinclination to make any significant concessions to Washington was evident when talks resumed in Vienna this week, when it became clear that Tehran – and not Washington – was dictating the agenda.
Although both the Iranian and American negotiating teams were present in the Austrian capital, at Iran’s insistence there were no direct negotiations between the two delegations. Instead, officials from European countries that are signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France and Germany – were required to indulge in a form of shuttle diplomacy, passing messages between the two camps.
It is not the first time that Tehran has delivered a diplomatic snub to Washington. In March, it declined to join a meeting of JCPOA parties hosted by the EU because US officials would be attending.
And, so long as the Biden administration allows Tehran to call all the shots, the more likely it is that any new deal over Iran’s nuclear programme will be to the regime’s advantage.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National
Published: April 8, 2021 06:00 PM