Iran’s next president gives Biden a new nuclear headache

“Iran has chosen a new president, which means Joe Biden faces a new dilemma.

Ebrahim Raisi, the victor in Iran’s recent, tightly controlled election, is not just any hardline Iranian politician. He stands accused of an array of human rights abuses, including the mass killing of political dissidents, and former President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on him. Now, Biden and top aides, led by U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley, are facing pressure over whether to lift the sanctions on Raisi as they negotiate with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.”

“Raisi, 60, is a cleric with long experience in Iran’s regime, including overseeing its judiciary. He is implicated in many human rights abuses, among them an alleged role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Raisi, who will take over the presidency in August, won an election Friday that was manipulated in his favor after many candidates were disqualified. That manipulation upset a large number of ordinary Iranians, and voter turnout was unusually low.”

Israel’s suspected attack on an Iranian nuclear site complicates US-Iran talks

“A mysterious power outage occurred at one of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities..in what reports indicate was likely an act of cyber-sabotage carried out by Israel — and it could have serious ramifications for the future of the floundering 2015 nuclear deal.”

“Under that original agreement, Iran agreed to significantly curb its nuclear program — including its uranium enrichment efforts — in exchange for the removal of some of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US.
But after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed those sanctions, Iran once again began to enrich uranium above the levels set by the deal.”

“It’s unclear if the Biden administration got a heads-up before the strike, though many believe the US was probably informed, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Israel at the time of the incident. The Biden administration firmly denies any foreknowledge or participation, though. “The US was not involved in any manner,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Either way, two big questions arise from this episode. The first is whether the Natanz attack might lead to a greater confrontation between Israel and Iran. Experts I spoke to don’t really think so, as Jerusalem has carried out many of these strikes without a serious overt response from Tehran.

They “fit a pattern of how the Israelis have tried to set back Iran’s program in the past. In that sense, this is business as usual,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC.

The second is if the attack might derail the sensitive negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the nuclear deal. And that, experts said, is certainly possible.”

“Those making this argument say that Iran has less political space to agree to a deal with the US now, because doing so would be extra embarrassing after being attacked. As a result, any progress on this front will at best be delayed and at worst derailed indefinitely. “Iran doesn’t like to appear that it is negotiating from a weakened position or under pressure,” Eric Brewer, who worked on nuclear issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tweeted on Monday.

Others, though, say that delaying Iran’s uranium enrichment by nine months actually weakens Iran’s position in nuclear talks. If Tehran increased its enrichment to pressure the US to get back into the pact — essentially proving it would keep inching closer and closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon unless the US agreed to come back to the deal — then without the ability to enrich uranium as quickly, that pressure on Washington potentially decreases.

What’s more, Iran is used to Israeli attacks. It therefore won’t be shocked into changing its long-term goal of getting the sanctions relief it desperately needs.”

How Biden’s best-laid plans for Iran and Saudi Arabia failed in his first month

“As the Democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal. He then aimed to leverage that negotiation to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior — like its growing ballistic missile program — in follow-on chats.

But in the Oval Office, the president has found the Islamic Republic resistant to diplomacy — but willing to have proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East. That led Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against those militants, hoping that would deter future attacks while keeping the door open for talks.

And on the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make it “pay the price” for human rights violations, including the grisly 2018 murder of dissident, US resident, and columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Though he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday directly blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, Biden declined to punish the nation’s de facto ruler outright. Instead of authorizing sanctions, a travel ban, or an asset freeze, the president created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. It’s unclear if that includes heads of state, however.

That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials say. A major consideration was that MBS, as the crown prince is known, may soon officially run the country, so targeting him personally could doom future relations between Washington and Riyadh.”

Three Solutions to Biden’s Nuclear Stalemate with Iran

“Biden must open the door for these direct talks. His first step must be significant enough to restore belief in the original “win-win” logic of the deal and offer Iranian officials a credible rationale for engagement with the U.S. At the same time, it may be limited enough to keep the U.S. outside of the deal, offering him political cover with critics and underscoring the necessity for Iran to also take reciprocal steps.

Taking this kind of first step could, in its way, be a signal of strength for Biden: He’d be showing domestic opponents of the JCPOA that he will not be bullied into compromising his Iran policy. The fight over the appointment of Robert Malley as Iran envoy showed that hawks will “play dirty” to undermine the credibility of Biden’s outreach to Iran. Biden ought to nip this kind of cynical politics in the bud.

If Biden goes go this route, officials in the U.S., Europe, and Iran are currently deliberating what a reasonable first move could be. Our conversations with officials suggest that there is awareness that breaking out of the political deadlock may require Biden to be bold. He has a few options.

First, the Biden administration could restore temporary waivers that enable Iran to sell oil while U.S. sanctions remain in place. Iran’s oil production and exports are rising faster than projected despite the Covid-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions. This trend has reduced the perceived urgency of restoring the nuclear deal among key political stakeholders in Tehran who may gain more power after the upcoming Iranian presidential election. The Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the JCPOA would be best served by making already increasing oil sales once again subject to the “win-win” logic of the nuclear deal. Iran’s earnings from these oil sales would be accrued in escrow accounts and subject to strict oversight as per the waiver terms. Revenues would be used by Iran for sanctions-exempt trade with the country in which the funds are held. Such a step would serve to remove a key piece of tension with U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan, and India whose energy security has been impacted by U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Second, the Biden administration could support Iran’s loan request for funds from the International Monetary Fund. Iran’s request has languished despite the IMF’s technical assessment that Iran qualifies for financial support to address the balance of payments crisis created by the pandemic. Iran has indicated it is ready for these funds to be disbursed to its accounts outside of the country to be used for paying for sanctions-exempt imports. The funds would not flow directly into Iranian government coffers, but rather be used to address trade deficits. The Biden administration should grant this loan as part of its commitment to address the humanitarian impact of sanctions and a wider push to encourage the IMF to use its full financial capacities to address the ongoing economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Finally, a third option could be easing Iran’s access to its existing foreign exchange reserves. Presently, Iran has free and ready access to an estimated 10 percent of its reserves, a circumstance that has placed extraordinary pressure on Iran’s currency and generated high levels of inflation that harm ordinary Iranians. Iran has been engaged in fraught negotiations with numerous countries to try and get access to frozen assets, who continue to look to the U.S. Treasury Department for the final say. The Biden administration could give these countries, including allies Germany and South Korea, the approvals and guidance necessary to enable both central and commercial banks to readily execute payments on behalf of Iranian account holders. As with the oil waivers and IMF loan, these payments can be restricted to sanctions-exempt trade, a key outcome of which would be lower rates of inflation.

Should Biden take any of these three steps, Iran can be expected to cease ramping up its nuclear program. Neither country would be fully implementing its commitments under the JCPOA, but an opportunity will have been created for new talks in the spirit of “win-win” diplomacy. There is no guarantee that these talks, and the complicated choreography of JCPOA restoration, will succeed. But Biden needs to give himself a shot. After the last four years, timid gestures will fail to do that. It’s time to be bold.”

U.S. must undo damage to nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister says

“Iran’s foreign minister said on Sunday that if the U.S. wanted to restore the terms of the nuclear agreement it exited, the onus was on the Biden administration to live up to the deal.
“It was the United States that left the deal,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “It was the United States that violated the deal. It was the United States that punished any country that remained respectful and compliant with the deal. So it is for the United States to return to the deal, to implement its obligations.””

“Iran’s foreign minister also said his country would refuse to consider negotiating a different deal or adding other elements to the agreement.

“The entire nuclear deal is nonnegotiable because it was fully negotiated,” Zarif said. “We need to implement something that we negotiated. We do not buy the horse twice.””

Trump left behind a sanctions minefield for Biden

“The 2015 Iran deal came together after years of U.S. and international sanctions battered the Islamic Republic’s economy and internal political shifts made an agreement more viable. The deal, which seven countries negotiated, lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.

However, the nuclear deal left in place numerous other U.S. sanctions on Iran, such as those related to the Islamist regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Many of the U.S. sanctions are especially powerful because they apply to non-American entities who would otherwise want to do business with Iran.

Trump took office complaining that the nuclear agreement was too narrowly focused and that its provisions didn’t last long enough. He withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 — then reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions while also piling on new sanctions on other fronts, such as ones targeting the Iranian regime’s corruption or its backing of terrorist activity. Overall, the sanctions have badly hit Iran’s economy, which also has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the U.S. departure, Iran, too, has taken steps that have put it out of compliance with the agreement, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. Iranian leaders say they’ll return to compliance with the deal once the United States lifts its sanctions — ideally returning to the 2016 status, they say. But Biden has indicated he wants Iran to return to compliance first before he’ll lift sanctions.”

“People who worked in the Trump administration say the new president shouldn’t lift any of the sanctions because the nuclear deal isn’t worth reviving. Rather, they argue that the Trump team handed Biden a gift by placing Iran’s Islamist regime under such intense pressure.

“Don’t let up,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran policy. “The only way to get positive movement out of Iran is to increase pressure.”

The deal’s supporters, however, point out that Trump’s strategy failed to push Iran into talks for a more stringent agreement. Nor has Tehran stopped other behavior that has upset the U.S. and its allies, such as backing militias outside its borders; it’s also closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon today than it was when the U.S. was in the deal.”

“Former U.S. officials say it’s possible that Biden’s final decisions will result in a mixed picture: Non-nuclear sanctions with a solid legal basis will stay on, while other sanctions – such as some that appear intended to wreck the nuclear deal – will likely be removed.

The Biden team might also take an incremental approach: Offer some limited sanctions relief in exchange for initial actions on Iran’s part to roll back its recent nuclear advances as a first step toward a full return to the agreement by both countries.

There is pressure to move quickly. For one thing, Iran’s presidential election, set for June, could usher into power a hardline government opposed to the nuclear deal.

But when asked for comment, a State Department official indicated the process of returning to the agreement will take longer than many advocates might wish.

“Iran is a long way from returning to compliance, and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate,” the official said in a written statement. “Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.””

Iran expands nuclear program amid heightened tensions with the US

“The new 20 percent enrichment target was set by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh was killed near Tehran on November 27, 2020, in an ambush that Iran has blamed on Israel.

And the same new law that mandates 20 percent enrichment also raises the imminent specter of international nuclear inspectors being expelled from the country: According to the New York Times, Iran has set “a two-month deadline for oil and banking sanctions against Iran to be lifted before inspectors are barred.” Currently, the IAEA says it has “inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordow.””

“In November 2020, Iran began operating advanced centrifuges at another underground nuclear facility, Natanz, and its nuclear stockpile stood at more than 12 times the limit imposed by the JCPOA.

US President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, has indicated that he hopes to rejoin and revive the JCPOA, which was negotiated while he was serving as vice president to President Barack Obama. Some observers see Iran’s enrichment efforts as a way of building negotiating leverage, but it remains to be seen whether recent strides in Iran’s nuclear program could complicate things.”

4 looming foreign policy crises that could derail Biden’s agenda early on

“President-elect Joe Biden may want his administration to focus on long-term issues like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, rebuilding alliances, and America’s relationship with China, but some key near-term foreign policy problems will likely require his attention first.

After the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by an unknown attacker, Iran might be less willing to engage in diplomacy with America and instead seek revenge by targeting US officials. North Korea could test an intercontinental ballistic missile early in Biden’s term to try to gauge the new administration’s response. The last remaining nuclear arms control deal between the US and Russia is set to expire just over two weeks after Biden takes office. And the reduced number of American troops in Afghanistan could derail sputtering peace talks and worsen the country’s security situation.

Such a dilemma wouldn’t be unique to Biden. Every new president comes in with ideas on how to handle larger global problems, only to have the colloquial “tyranny of the inbox” monopolize their time. “If you assume that foreign policy is less than half, and maybe a quarter, of the president’s time, then that really shines a light on how serious this inbox problem is,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Once he’s in the Oval Office, then, Biden will likely find his hopes of tackling grander foreign policy challenges dashed by the effort he’ll have to expend cleaning up more immediate messes.”

How Trump got suckered by Iran and North Korea

“Kim Jong Un didn’t give up his nuclear weapons. Negotiations stalled. North Korea resumed testing with 22 missile launches and counting, including a new submarine-launched missile with a range of about 2,500 km. And North Korea, in December, resumed engine testing at a test facility near Tongchang-ri. Kim ended the year with a speech in which he announced that he would no longer abide by the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, that North Korea would “shift to shocking actual actions to make [the US] fully pay,” and would soon reveal a “new strategic weapon.”

Yet US officials are still arguing that these threats are little more than bluster and that Kim will soon enough yield to pressure. On January 7, a State Department official asserted that there had been a “significant reduction through the year of North Korean activity, missiles, tests, and all the rest of that stuff” and that “will continue … because the US has taken a solid stand and demonstrated strength and insistence that the agreements be adhered to.”

US officials, of course, said the same thing about Iran. When a State Department official was asked if he thought Iran would retaliate after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the official said, “No, I don’t.” When reporters pressed the issue, he said: “I’m just saying that weakness invites more aggression. Timidity will invite more aggression,” and “we’re speaking in a language the regime understands.” That was on January 3. Less than a week later, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US targets in Iraq.

US officials were also skeptical that Iran would respond to Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that Tehran would simply agree to a “tougher” deal. Under the agreement reached by President Obama, the world lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to limits on its civilian nuclear energy program that would help reassure the world that Tehran was not building a nuclear weapon.

When Trump reimposed those sanctions, Iran responded by abandoning those limits one by one. Iran has not completely abandoned the agreement: It is still allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear programs, remains a non-nuclear member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has offered to return to compliance if the US removes the sanctions again.

But what Iran has not agreed to is the better deal that Trump’s supporters promised was just around the corner.”

“It is remarkable that, across the board, Trump’s strategies of pressure and bullying have resulted in no tangible agreements — no deal with Kim Jong Un, no meeting with Iran’s leaders, and no arms control deals with either the Russians or the Chinese.”

Escalation Breeds Escalation, in Iran and Beyond

“Washington’s bipartisan military-first approach to foreign affairs broadcasts to bad actors worldwide that U.S. intervention is always at hand and that a nuclear arsenal is the only sure deterrence against it.

North Korea has affirmed this logic explicitly. “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression,” a state-run media editorial declared in January 2016. Neither Iraq’s Saddam Hussein nor Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, both deposed and killed with U.S. involvement, could “escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations of nuclear development and giving up undeclared programs of their own accord,” the editorial continued. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is visibly determined not to follow in their footsteps.

For all its imperfections, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—better known as the “Iran deal”—presented an opportunity to break this pattern. Unfortunately, that opportunity is gone following Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. After the Soleimani strike, Tehran announced its own exit from the plan and, with that, its intent to proceed with nuclear research and development at will.”