“America is back,” said President Biden at the State Department last month in launching his foreign policy. “Diplomacy is back at the center,” he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken later announced that Biden will abandon the hardline xenophobic, high tariff approach that the Trump administration took to China, and instead form Asian alliances to seek diplomatic solutions.

And then there is Iran. Time is no friend of Biden’s Iran policy. This summer’s Iranian elections may result in a more hardline government. The news this week is that Fort McNair in Washington is already on alert by reason of a credible threatened Iranian attack in reprisal for the 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a Revolutionary Guard Corps element responsible for extraterritorial and clandestine military operations.

Iran is among the most important national security problems faced by the United States. The Obama-Biden administration thought they got it right with the 2015 nuclear agreement (more formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). The deal drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. True, it cut the amount of enriched uranium Iran could legally possess, reduced its ability to produce more and introduced an intrusive set of inspections. The result was that the time Iran would need to build nuclear weapons and achieve a nuclear or near nuclear capability increased to something on the order of one year, a period sufficiently long for Western intelligence agencies to discover what was going on and for governments to respond.

At the same time, there were problems with the JCPOA, including its short fuse (it essentially terminates in 2025, and so will run out in four years). It also suffered from a lack of constraints on delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles.

The Trump administration abrogated JCPOA in 2018. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that Iran would remain a bad actor in the region unless brought to its knees by crippling sanctions. So, we applied “maximum pressure” with new crippling sanctions.

Iran reciprocated with five fraught breaches of JCPOA: increasing its stockpiles of heavy water and enriched uranium; exceeding the JCPOA 3.67 percent uranium-235 enrichment limit; expanding its research and development of advanced centrifuges; enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent at its Fordow enrichment facility; and announcing it would no longer be bound by any JCPOA operational limitations.

The U.S. sanctions constituted a form of economic warfare. Iran initiated a series of actions meant to make the United States and others pay a price for the sanctions and therefore conclude they needed to be removed. It did not make diplomacy easier when in January 2020 Trump ordered the Soleimani assassination.

It will not be easy to jump back into a nuclear deal with Iran. Iran has demanded that the U.S. roll back the Trump-imposed sanctions as a predicate for further negotiations. Signaling a departure from the Trump “maximum pressure” approach, Biden withdrew the U.S. request to the U.N. Security Council that sanctions be reimposed. But he has insisted that the U.S. will not lift sanctions unless Iran stops enriching uranium. He said he wants to lengthen and strengthen the deal, and promised to consult with Israel and the Gulf states before taking the plunge.

The U.S. negotiators are old Iran hands. Secretary of State Blinken was deputy secretary of state when JCPOA went down. A key U.S. negotiator in 2015 was the former president of the International Crisis Group, Robert Malley, who has just been appointed special envoy to Iran. Malley has drawn more than his share of criticism. Over the years, he has not been bashful in engaging with U.S. and Israeli enemies, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

It is expected that Malley will be a major player in the diplomacy with Iran going forward. He has a record of favoring diplomacy over force, and opposing draconian sanctions. In a 2018 article in “Foreign Policy,” he said that “By imposing comprehensive sanctions that will only be lifted if Iran does everything the United States wants, the [U.S.] is likely ensuring that Iran will do nothing it wants.” Instead, he proposed nesting the nuclear negotiations in a broader set of discussions with Iran and the Gulf states to reduce regional tensions. In a 2020 Foreign Affairs piece, Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made clear that there is little daylight between his position and Malley’s. He wants “to press for a de-escalation of tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.”

But the hardline coercion advocates are afraid Malley will concede too much to Iran’s ayatollah in order to make a deal. With the news of his appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) condemned “radicals like Malley,” who he claimed has “a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime” and “animus towards Israel.”

Of course, the elephant in the room is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may not be in power much longer, has opposed JCPOA, and wants a more confrontational approach to Iran, which he regards as a terrorist state. JCPOA is not a “farewell to arms,” he said, “but a farewell to arms control.”

Meanwhile the clock is ticking. We are where we are, and the game is afoot.

Source » thehill