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.”

Why the New START Extension Could Be the End of Arms Control as We Know It

“With the five-year extension of New START, the United States and Russia got a reprieve to come up with new ways to manage their strategic competition. They should use this time to engage in a no-holds-barred dialogue about their differences and to think boldly and creatively beyond the established framework that is bound to run into the insurmountable twin obstacles of political headwinds and conceptual obsolescence.”

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.”

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.””

Putin and Biden confirm extension of New START treaty

“Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed Tuesday to extend the New START nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which is due to expire next month, according to Kremlin and White House summaries of a phone call between the leaders.

“They discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years, agreeing to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension by February 5,” the White House said.”

“Formally called the “New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty,” the agreement limits Washington and Moscow’s deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 each. It was signed in 2010, entered force on February 5, 2011 and was set to expire on its 10th anniversary.

New START is the last remaining nonproliferation agreement between the former Cold War superpower rivals, after another key nuclear accord, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, expired in August 2019.”

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.”

COVID-19 Demonstrates the Need To Change Nuclear Weapon Launch Authority

“While Congress or military leaders are involved in any other decision to use of military force, the president can legally order a nuclear strike on his own. “Congress doesn’t have any role in this at the moment,” says Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “They’re not expected to be consulted.”

Unitary presidential control of nuclear weapons dates from the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the practice has been cemented over time. This is partly a product of the general shift toward a stronger executive, and partly just an issue of timing: If the missiles are coming, you can’t call up Congress.”

“”The system we have is very much a product of the 1940s, with some modifications in the 1950s and the 1960s,” Wellerstein says. “And we don’t live in the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s. So I think we should feel free to question whether the system we have now is the ideal system for our present day.””