A series of back-and-forth retaliations and antagonistic statements between Washington and Tehran are putting the Biden administration’s plans for a return to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal at greater risk every day.
“You cannot go with impunity. Be careful,” President Joe Biden told reporters on Friday, describing his message to Iran after ordering air strikes against buildings in eastern Syria that Iranian-backed militias said were being used by the Pentagon.
The strikes were in retaliation for a February 15 attack in which missiles hit Iraq’s Erbil International Airport, where coalition forces are housed. The attack, which Western and Iraqi officials attribute to Iranian-backed militia forces, killed a contractor from the US-led coalition and injured several others, including an American service member. Iran rejects allegations of its involvement.
None of this bodes well for what the Biden administration sees as a foreign policy priority: a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, which was drafted under the Obama administration with several world powers and in turn lifted economic sanctions against Iran limited to its nuclear program.
The deal has all but collapsed since the Trump administration unilaterally dropped it in 2018 and imposed extensive sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy.
Whether or when the deal can be revived is a crucial question for foreign policy and the legacy of the Biden team in the Middle East. Former US diplomat Joseph Westphal, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Obama’s second term in office, does not see this in the short or medium term.
“I don’t think we’ll see a deal,” Westphal told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Monday this year. “I think we may see negotiations begin to reach an agreement. The end of the year is just around the corner. And I think these things will take a long time.”
An invitation and a refusal
In early February, the Biden team took an important step to start informal negotiations with Tehran, signaling the first US diplomatic mission in more than four years. The Iranian leadership declined the invitation at the weekend.
Trying to approach is difficult for Biden. He faces significant domestic opposition to the Iran deal and does not want to appear “soft” to the country’s regime, especially at a time when Iran is increasing its uranium enrichment and storage in violation of the deal, which it does closer brings bomb-making ability.
Tehran insists that this is a response to US sanctions and that its actions can be reversed if the sanctions are lifted first. Meanwhile, Biden says he will only lift economic penalties if Tehran retracts its violations. So the two of them are at a dead end.
Tehran last week restricted the UN nuclear watcher’s access to its nuclear activities, further jeopardizing the deal, although inspectors still retain some access. And on Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind an attack on one of its tankers off the coast of Oman on Friday. Iran denies any involvement.
Try to level the playing field
However, not everyone believes that a return to the JCPOA is not possible this year. Ayham Kamel, Head of Political Risk Practice at Eurasia Group in the Middle East, sees the current escalations as an attempt to level the playing field.
“There is no easy path for JCPOA plus. I think whatever is happening in the region now – part of the escalation in Iraq, part of the escalation in Iran, even the Iranians making the first offer for direct negotiations with the US refuse – I think that’s all negotiation before negotiation, “said Kamel.
“It’s an effort to really level the field. The Iranians are trying to get the most out of this process. The JCPOA will take place, the re-entry I think will happen sometime this year, but it will be difficult.” “”
Kamel added that the Iranian leadership itself remains divided over the return to the deal as it weighs the need for economic relief through sanctions and its opposition to compliance with US demands.
“The top leader wants a deal, but many in the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) don’t necessarily want a weak start to negotiations,” he said, referring to Iran’s powerful and ideological parallel force. “They want the negotiations to start from a strong position and the regional escalation is all part of it.”
Others believe a return to the deal is inevitable simply because the Iranian economy has been so devastated by the sanctions. The currency is in free fall, exports have been cut, and Iranians are struggling to afford food and medicine.
“I think a deal is finally possible,” Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told CNBC earlier this month, “because the Iranians need money.”