Signaling a New Willingness to Talk, Biden Scrambles to Save Iran Nuclear Deal
The new administration is looking for an interim road map—but insists it won’t be pressured by Tehran’s deadline to halt inspections next week.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
In a flurry of quiet diplomatic discussions, the Biden administration is scrambling to find a way to salvage the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal renounced by former U.S. President Donald Trump, despite the worsening public standoff between Washington and Tehran over the issue in recent weeks, according to diplomatic sources.
And on Thursday, the Biden team publicly shifted their approach, signaling to Iran that they were willing to take part in negotiations to find ways in which both sides could return to the deal.
Having pledged to re-embrace the 2015 pact during the presidential campaign and to launch broader diplomatic efforts with allies to achieve this end, Biden directed Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special Iran envoy Rob Malley to engage key U.S. allies such as Britain and France, as well as the Chinese and Russians, who were also party to the deal. On Thursday, Blinken discussed the issue by videoconference with the three major European parties to the pact: France, Germany, and Britain.
The result was a statement rarely seen during the Trump era, presenting a unified U.S.-European front that “reaffirmed the centrality of the transatlantic partnership” and demanded that Tehran take “no additional steps” to breach the pact. But in a subtle shift, the Biden administration also agreed Thursday to “engage in discussions with Iran toward that end”—a change from its previous stark insistence that Tehran first return to compliance before any other actions are taken.
State Department spokesman Ned Price later issued a statement saying the administration “would accept an invitation from the European High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5 plus one [the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany and Iran] to discuss a diplomatic way forward.”
European diplomats said they were gratified by the Biden administration’s new openness to talking with Tehran, despite the ugly atmosphere of recent weeks stemming from Tehran’s decision to increase its enrichment of uranium and produce uranium metal that can be used for bombs. That was followed up this week by a rocket attack on the Iraqi city of Erbil by Iranian-backed militias that left one U.S. contractor dead. As yet, the Biden administration has not responded to these provocations.
“It’s another signal that the Americans are willing to get back to discussions,” said one European official privy to the negotiations who would speak only on condition of anonymity. In a background briefing Thursday evening, a senior Biden administration official described the initiative as a “common-sense shift” because, without new negotiations, neither Washington nor Tehran would take the first step toward a solution. Another senior U.S. official said: “All kinds of things could be discussed at the table.”
The change in position comes as the clock is ticking on Biden’s efforts to salvage the Iran deal. The Iranian Parliament has legislated a Feb. 23 deadline for abandoning conditions that allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to survey Iranian compliance on short notice. Tehran has already rejected IAEA requests to visit non-declared sites believed to be part of Iran’s nuclear program, and it has informed the IAEA that if the 2015 nuclear pact is not restored immediately, it will stop implementing the “transparency measures” it is voluntarily observing. That includes shutting off surveillance cameras at nuclear sites.
Such a move could kill the nuclear deal altogether, especially coming on top of Iran’s recent escalation of tensions. “If we lose our eyes and ears on the ground, there may be no going back,” said another European diplomat who would also speak only on condition of anonymity.
But neither side is yet standing down in its insistence that the other moves first. Following Blinken’s meeting with the European ministers and the statement from Washington that the U.S. was willing to hold new talks, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed the policy as mere “words.” In an Instagram post, he said Biden must first lift all sanctions, calling it Iran’s “final policy.”
Officials familiar with the administration’s thinking say that Biden and Blinken are concerned about being perceived as weak if they make any concessions at the outset. They are especially wary of alienating Republicans on Capitol Hill, whose votes are needed for more urgent priorities, including Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and his ambitious plans for infrastructure investment and curtailing climate change.
And so, they are still playing a game of chicken with Tehran. Blinken repeatedly insists that Tehran must return to full compliance before the United States rejoins the pact. Iran says it will kick the inspectors out if Washington doesn’t provide sanctions relief first.
Nonetheless, some hard liners in Washington were unhappy with the latest developments. They are alarmed by the possibility that, in the end, Biden will give in to save a deal that several of his top foreign-policy advisors, including Malley and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, were intimately involved in crafting. As then-Vice President Biden’s top foreign-policy advisor, Sullivan met in Oman in 2013 with Iranian negotiators to start talks that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran pact is called, two years later. Malley was also a key player in those negotiations.
“It’s a foregone conclusion that the Biden administration will blink first and that sanctions will be disproportionately lifted while Iran remains in significant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, let alone the JCPOA,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a conservative Middle East expert who opposed the nuclear pact.
Further signs that diplomatic efforts were quickening ahead of the Iranian deadline came when German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a rare phone call on Wednesday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, telling him that “positive signals” were needed from Iran before any progress could be made. Rouhani responded that the only way forward was for the United States to first revoke its “inhumane and illegal” sanctions on Iran. Rouhani also told Merkel it would be “impossible” to alter the nuclear deal by adding negotiations on Iran’s missile program and its regional influence in supporting groups like Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in countries such as Iraq—a key modification needed to secure Republican support for any new deal.
As of yet, there is no diplomatic solution on the table, just a lot of diplomacy. Ahead of the Feb. 23 deadline, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi is expected to be in Tehran on Feb. 20 for further talks. Iran, meanwhile, appears to want Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief and head of the JCPOA Joint Commission, to orchestrate a simultaneous return to the deal by Tehran and Washington. In other recent, unpublicized talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—a chief architect of the 2015 deal—has reportedly pressed Borrell to produce a road map calling for reciprocal actions by the United States and Iran.
But a senior Biden administration official involved in the negotiations told Foreign Policy Thursday night that no discussions had yet begun on the question of whether Washington would consider gradually reducing sanctions at the same time as Tehran reduced enrichment or other violations of the nuclear pact.
In striking contrast to the approach taken by Trump, the new Biden administration is trying to bring on board as many allies as possible, including Gulf states hostile to Iran as well as Israel. Biden’s reluctance to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the early weeks of the administration—they had their first conversation on Wednesday—was likely related to Netanyahu’s preemptive attempt in December 2020 to get the new U.S. president not to rejoin the Iran pact, as well as the history of bad blood between the two leaders, some Middle East experts said.
“Joe Biden’s instinct under normal circumstances would be to pick up the phone and call the Israeli leader, not in the top five or six calls but in the first 15. The fact that he waited so long is a demonstration that there’s a real distance over the administration’s policies on Iran,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East negotiator now with the Carnegie Endowment.
Before Biden took office, Netanyahu—who enraged the Obama-Biden administration by preemptively seeking to scuttle the JCPOA in a 2015 speech before the U.S. Congress—warned strongly against a return to the accord, saying it could lead to military hostilities.
But the Biden administration is also seeking to assuage the Israelis by calling for a tougher deal on top of the old JCPOA—a pact that would cover Tehran’s missile program and Iranian-sponsored militia activities in the region. According to a source familiar with Biden and Blinken’s strategy, in its eagerness to bring Israel on board, the administration also sought to wait until Netanyahu chose his Iran envoy, Meir Ben-Shabbat, so he could participate in the Iran discussions. Shabbat was named only this week.
The long delay in starting negotiations has alarmed the Iranians. “Time is running out for the Americans, both because of the Parliament bill [the Feb. 23 deadline] and the election atmosphere,” Zarif said in an interview with the Hamshahri newspaper earlier this month. Iranian presidential elections are scheduled for June 2021. Israel faces a snap election on March 23. With many in Israel’s security apparatus tentatively in support of the Iran nuclear pact, Israel’s opposition could also shift if Netanyahu and his fragile coalition government falls.
“What’s positive here is that Tony Blinken has said he has to consult with the Gulf Arabs and Israel early, that it’s a chance to be together on takeoff, so we can be together on landing,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, a pro-Israel think tank.
Biden is confident that he has a much more secure relationship with the Israelis than former President Barack Obama had. In 2010, Netanyahu further enraged the Obama administration when then-Vice President Biden traveled to Israel to promote talks with the Palestinians, only to find himself embarrassed when the Israeli government announced an expansion of settlement units outside Jerusalem, undermining Biden’s mission. But afterward, Biden argued down other factions in the White House who “wanted to exact more pounds of flesh” for the snub, said Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East negotiator who accompanied Biden on that trip. “Biden has a genuinely deep emotional commitment to Israel. He’s always gotten along with Bibi, despite their differences.”
But the most pressing question in the days ahead will be whether Washington and Tehran can find an interim diplomatic solution. Also on Thursday, in a further effort to assuage Tehran, the U.S. announced that it was reversing its previous support of the Trump administration’s position on the so-called snap-back of sanctions—meaning that all sanctions on Iran prior to the 2015 deal immediately went into force as soon as the U.S. left the pact in 2018. The administration also said it was eliminating the travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats at the U.N. imposed by Trump.
A senior administration official added that the U.S. was looking at various creative solutions to help the heavily sanctioned Iranian economy, including possibly loans from the International Monetary Fund or other kinds of cash infusions, though all such measures would entail political risk for Biden at home.
Senior Diplomatic Reporter Colum Lynch contributed to this report.
March 9: This story has been updated with to fix a typo
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh