Home USA News Biden fights for Plan B with Iran on life-sustaining nuclear deal

Biden fights for Plan B with Iran on life-sustaining nuclear deal


The global push to curb Iran’s nuclear program has entered uncharted territory as the US and its allies signal that talks with Tehran are nearly over, and it’s unclear whether the Biden administration has a viable Plan B to keep Iran’s theocratic regime from getting the nuclear bomb that the deal was supposed to prevent.

The sudden collapse of the high-stakes multilateral talks comes as Iran deepens its diplomatic and military ties with Russia, fueling fears that the Kremlin may offer covert aid to Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for more drones and missiles for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Analysts say it is clear that Iran has, at least for the time being, all but given up on diplomacy with the West and made a calculated decision that there are more benefits to aligning with Russian President Vladimir Putin than continuing to negotiate with the US and Europe.

The collapse of those nuclear talks — aimed at restoring the 2015 Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions — combined with Iran’s deepening military partnership with Moscow has turned U.S. Iran policy into uncertainty. . President Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, and the Biden administration and other world powers trying to restore it with Tehran have faced repeated frustrations at the negotiating table.

Administration officials acknowledge that the nuclear talks are now in a deep freeze, thanks in large part to Iran’s support for Russia — a co-signatory of the original 2015 accord with the United States — and its crackdown on domestic protesters. They insist that diplomacy remains the best tool to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a goal that may take on greater importance amid reports from the United Nations that Iran is actively ramping up uranium enrichment and other nuclear processes in the absence of a new deal.

But it is not clear how prepared the administration is for this crucial moment. Reversing Mr. Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 has been a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s Iran policy for nearly two years.

Critics say many of the top liberal negotiators in the Biden administration, including the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, have been so committed to renewing the JCPOA that alternatives have barely been considered, and there are no easy solutions to dealing with the government in Tehran. , which is increasingly impatient to get economic sanctions lifted and antagonistic towards the West and its own citizens.

“The lack of a Plan B has been a problem in Iran’s strategy throughout the JCPOA era,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, a critic of the original deal and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “First Obama and then Biden’s failure to come up with the best alternative to the negotiated agreement convinced the ayatollahs [in Iran] that the negotiators … were desperate.’

“Biden’s team is like gamblers who are already deep in the hole, who believe they can get out with just one last bet,” he said. “But instead of losing cold hard cash, they’re losing America’s hard-fought battle of intergenerational trust. … Biden has no plan B.”

Mr. Rubin added that “in the short term, the Iranian regime will benefit if there is no immediate resumption of maximum pressure” of the Trump-era policies. These policies have subjected the Iranian economy to unprecedented sanctions, halting Iran’s economic growth and severely limiting its ability to do business or sell its vast reserves of oil and natural gas internationally.

At the same time, the Trump administration has directly targeted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite military group with direct ties to armed groups that regularly attack US troops in Iraq and Syria. Mr. Trump authorized a January 2020 US drone strike on Baghdad that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the elite IRGC Quds Force. His administration took the unprecedented step of officially designating an Iranian military unit as a terrorist organization.

Against this backdrop, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi appear to be skeptical of the latest round of diplomacy. Having once struck a deal with the West only to watch it torn up by a new US president, Iran’s leaders sought firm, unrealistic assurances throughout the negotiations that Washington would never again pull the rug out. U.S. officials also say the Iranian side has insisted on an end to United Nations investigations into undeclared nuclear sites as part of any deal, among other demands the Biden administration has rejected.

The end of diplomacy?

Still, the administration has made progress in the talks while launching multiple airstrikes against Iran-linked militias in Syria.

Diplomacy finally collapsed only after the September crackdown on domestic protesters in Iran and Russia’s high-profile sales of so-called “suicide drones.”

“When [the Iranians] were very interested in reviving the nuclear deal, they should not have sent those drones to Russia. The fact was given [the West] The reason to believe that their commitment to diplomacy is Iran’s fault,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program.

“They made a decision to undertake obligations to Putin,” he said. “In the context of nuclear negotiations with the West, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Ayatollah Khamenei is primarily concerned with pleasing Putin. If it hurts him in the nuclear talks… so be it. For him, this is a secondary issue.”

Iran, for its part, has issued a stunning denial that it has sent military drones to Moscow since the start of the war in Ukraine and insists it remains committed to negotiations to renew a new version of the JCPOA, blaming Washington for the impasse.

Mr. Vatanka stressed that he believed nuclear talks could resume at some point during Mr. Biden’s tenure, though until then the 2024 U.S. presidential election could give Tehran even more pause over the strength of any deal. The failure of Republicans — who were largely vocal critics of the original deal and negotiations to renew it — to make significant gains in Congress in the 2022 midterm elections could also give Mr. Biden unexpected room for maneuver.

But for now, European officials, who actively lobbied for the renewal of the agreement, give a gloomy forecast. Earlier this month, Bijan Jir-Sarai, secretary general of Germany’s liberal Free Democrats, which is part of Germany’s new coalition government, told multiple news outlets that the Iran nuclear deal “has no future and is not true.” British and French officials said in late October that Iran’s sale of drones to Russia was a direct violation of the terms of the JCPOA, meaning Europe could reinstate its own list of economic sanctions against Iran. Such a move would make diplomacy even less likely.

Mr Malley was even more blunt in his assessment, telling CNN late last month that a nuclear deal was “not even on the agenda”.

“It’s not a trick because there’s no movement,” Mr Malley said.

In a speech earlier this month at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event, Mr. Malley defended the administration’s handling of Iran policy. Proponents of the deal argue that the deal was never intended to reverse all of Iran’s hostile policies in the region, but was intended to ease the fear of an Iranian bomb — and a likely nuclear arms race in the Middle East — so that other issues could be addressed.

Mr Malley stressed that the US had imposed sanctions and taken other steps to punish Iran when its militias targeted US troops in the region.

“I think what people need to understand is that they didn’t tie our hands because of … this hope that someday maybe a deal would be done,” he said. “No, we are taking measures. We don’t wait. We take actions that we believe are consistent and necessary to advance our values ​​and national security interests.”

Going forward, there are growing questions about how closer ties between Iran and Russia could change the global security landscape. Russia relies heavily on Iran’s Shahed drones to attack Ukrainian infrastructure, and it’s almost certain that Tehran wants something in return. Mr Raisi, Iran’s hard-line president, made the announcement during a meeting with Russian Security Council Secretary Mykola Patrushev in Tehran on Wednesday for talks on bilateral economic and strategic cooperation.

“Cooperation between independent countries is the most decisive response to the sanctions and destabilization policies of the United States and its allies,” Mr Raisi told his Russian guest, according to Iranian press reports.

Most analysts agree that helping Iran develop nuclear weapons is not in Moscow’s interests. Russia was a signatory to the original JCPOA along with the US, UK, France, Germany and China, and Kremlin leaders have publicly advocated a policy of preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Still, national security experts are worried about what the future holds.

“Regarding the sale of drones to Russia, this is what the Iranians discussed years before the war in Ukraine. We just laughed at them. Sometimes enemies tell us exactly what they will do. You have to take their word for it,” said Mr. Rubin, an analyst at AEI.

“Maybe George W. Bush wasn’t so wrong about the ‘axis of evil.’ He simply made a mistake by not including Russia there,” he said.

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