Europeans Fear Iran Nuclear Window Closing
The Biden administration rebuffed European pleas to lift some sanctions in its first weeks in office.
In the weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, British, French, and German diplomats approached the new administration with a plan to revive the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal. They proposed lifting some of the sanctions that had been removed by President Barack Obama and then reimposed by President Donald Trump. The idea was to bring the United States closer to compliance with the nuclear accord it had walked away from, and to put the onus on Iran to reciprocate, according to two European diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of negotiations.
Europe figured Biden could keep a raft of additional measures Trump had levied, to maintain some leverage over Iran and make progress on issues of concern to all sides, especially Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for a host of regional militias.
“The advice of the Europeans to the Americans was do it quickly and immediately, because all the signals they had from the Iranian side was as soon as the Americans come back, we will come back,” said Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States and the United Nations who previously led France’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and other key powers. “The best way forward would have been to immediately come back to the [nuclear pact] with an executive order, and they didn’t do it.”
The challenge of striking a deal, Araud added, may prove insurmountable, given the growing domestic U.S. opposition to a pact that would leave Iran with more money and no new constraints on its ballistic missile program and its support for regional militia. “It will be complicated, it will take months and it may fail,” he said.
Biden instead insisted that Iran would have to take the first step by reversing a set of nuclear activities it restarted in response to Trump’s rejection of the deal. The Europeans, according to Ali Vaez, an expert on Iran with the International Crisis Group, “were told from the get-go that the president doesn’t want to make any unilateral gestures toward Iran.”
The exchange provided an early sign to Europeans that Biden wasn’t going to move as fast as he had signaled during the campaign. It also raised concern among European diplomats that after they struggled to save the landmark nuclear deal from Trump’s attempts to kill it, the new U.S. administration might be risking the agreement’s future through caution, delay, and inaction.
“There is a degree of concern and anxiousness that both the U.S. and Iran have missed a window of opportunity in the early days of the Biden administration to make some swift moves toward compliance,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“After four years of trying to keep this agreement together under the Trump administration, the Europeans are hoping that it doesn’t fall apart under a Biden administration,” she said. “There would be a real tragic irony in that happening.”
In recent months, the White House has resisted additional European entreaties to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods and to release Iranian funds in foreign banks as confidence-building measures, insisting that Tehran move first to scale back a range of activities it has taken in violation of the 2015 pact, including enriching more uranium than permitted and to higher concentrations. Europeans have also been pressing Washington to reinstate waivers that permit foreign governments to participate in civil nuclear programs with Iran. The arrangement, a cornerstone of the 2015 pact, was meant to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, including by redesigning the Arak heavy water reactor to ensure that it can’t be used to produce plutonium.
For its part, Iran has also refused to engage in talks with signatories of the nuclear deal until the United States agrees to lift sanctions, leaving the two sides deadlocked.
A senior Biden administration official said that the Europeans never proposed that the United States meet all its obligations under the nuclear treaty without Iran taking mutual steps; even China and Russia, also signatories, envisioned some sort of synchronized return to compliance with the pact, the official said.
But it is “accurate that some Europeans felt we should take the first early steps. The Europeans, Russians, and Chinese all felt the U.S. withdrew from the deal first, the U.S. should take the first step. I think it’s fair to say some Europeans thought an early gesture by us might have set a different tone. It might have helped, it might not,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the confidential nature of nuclear negotiations.
“What we conveyed to the Europeans was that we were prepared to take some steps, but not unilaterally,” the official said.
If Europe was expecting quick action on sanctions, it’s because that’s what Biden promised on the campaign trail.
But Europeans underestimated the widespread domestic political opposition to the deal, which has been led by powerful Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham. In a March 8 letter to the president, the two lawmakers urged Biden to work with key allies, including critics of the nuclear pact in Israel and the Gulf States, to forge a new agreement that not only constrains Iran’s prospects for acquiring a nuclear bomb but also checks its ability to destabilize the region and advance its ballistic missile program.
“[W]e must confront the reality that Iran has accelerated its nuclear activity in alarming ways including increasing its centrifuge research and production and enriching uranium up to 20 percent,” they wrote in the letter, which was forwarded to the president on Thursday with the signatures of 41 additional Democratic and Republican senators. “Iran continues to pose a threat to U.S. and international security through exporting arms, including highly accurate missiles, supporting Shia militias that target U.S. service members, and supporting terrorist organizations and other malign actors throughout the region.”
Supporters of the Iran nuclear pact say aiming for a huge deal, which mirrors the Trump administration’s demands for greater Iranian concessions for sanctions relief, would undermine any prospects for reviving the limited deal. “The nuclear pact is not a domestic political issue in Europe; they didn’t understand how much of an obstacle domestic political opposition to progress it would be,” Vaez said.
The debate over reengaging with Iran has opened fissures within the Democratic Party. Progressives worry that the White House is yielding to political pressure from Menendez, even though “his hawkish views are out of step with his caucus, and out of step with the vast majority of voters who support diplomacy over war,” said one congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is a political calculation,” the aide added. “It’s worse. It’s a bad political calculation.
The congressional aide expressed concern that Biden may already have botched an opportunity to make good on a promise to rejoin the nuclear agreement. “This is one of President Biden’s clearest commitments. As a candidate, Biden stated the ‘urgent’ need to rejoin the JCPOA. I am not feeling the fucking urgency,” the congressional aide said, referring to the deal by an abbreviation of its formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “They should have done this on day two. Instead, we’re watching the opportunity for diplomacy slip away, and the likelihood of greater conflict increase.”
For its part, Iran has refused to scale back its prohibited nuclear activities until Washington lifts sanctions as required by the 2015 nuclear pact. A year after Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran gradually stopped abiding by certain aspects of the agreement. Tehran ramped up its centrifuges to produce enriched uranium, increased both the size and purity of its uranium stockpile, and has shortened its breakout time toward a bomb. More recently, Iran has taken steps to escalate the crisis, announcing plans in February to scale back international nuclear inspections.
In a statement marking the Iranian New Year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said his country was in “no hurry” to revive the nuclear pact, and that Tehran would recommit to the accord once the United States has verifiably lifted sanctions. “It’s not a matter of who should be the first. The issue is that we trusted the Americans and fulfilled our commitments in the nuclear deal, but they didn’t,” he said.
Some observers say it’s naive to think Tehran will meet Washington halfway. The United States has already taken steps toward accommodating Iran: reversing Trump’s effort to reimpose U.N. sanctions, ending travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York, and asking Iran to come to a meeting of signatories of the agreement. (Tehran refused.)
The senior U.S. official noted that Iran decided to restrict access of international nuclear inspectors in the country after the United States announced plans to withdraw some Trump-era sanctions.
“I don’t buy the idea that if only Biden would have moved quicker, this would have happened, regardless of what the Biden administration did or did not do in its first months in office,” said Henry Rome, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. “The conservatives in the Iranian government were going to very be strongly opposed to reentry into this deal.” Rome said that he expects that while the United States and Iran are unlikely to strike any nuclear deal before Iran’s June elections, he believes Washington and Tehran will return to compliance before the end of the year.
The push to salvage the deal has also been complicated on the ground. On Feb. 15, an Iran-backed militia allegedly fired rockets at the Erbil airport in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor who worked for the U.S.-led military coalition and wounding several others, including a U.S. service member and an Iraqi civilian who died a week later. Ten days later, Biden ordered a limited rocket strike against Iran-backed militants in eastern Syria.
“It’s not really helping the climate in the U.S. to have Iranian allies take shots at Americans in Iraq or elsewhere, and the U.S. will respond as it has responded and it will continue to respond,” Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said in March.
The United Kingdom, France, and Germany have pursued a nuclear pact with Iran since 2003, after revelations emerged that Tehran had secretly begun developing a heavy water reactor that Western governments feared could be used for the production of plutonium, as well as an underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. It was the first of a series of on-again off-again diplomatic initiatives aimed at containing Iran’s nuclear program. The United States, which was preoccupied seeking to pacify Iraq, did not take part in those early talks.
A decade later, Obama dispatched Bill Burns, a veteran U.S. diplomat who was recently sworn in as Biden’s director of the CIA, to Oman to begin secret talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Those initial talks culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was endorsed by Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United States, and the European Union, and which placed a series of verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions.
The nuclear pact faced fierce opposition from allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, and pro-Israeli lawmakers in the United States, who feared it would provide Tehran with the financial resources to threaten its neighbors. They argued that Iran could not be trusted to live up to its obligations.
“It was never going to be easy,” said Mark Lyall Grant, who served previously as Britain’s national security advisor and led its Iran nuclear negotiations. “It’s true that the opposition has had time to mobilize, but the opposition has always been there. If the Americans are persuaded there is a deal to be done, I don’t think opposition from others in the region is a problem. It’s a challenge, but it’s not an insuperable one.”
Grant noted the efforts Europeans have made to keep the deal alive, even as Washington walked and Tehran balked.
“The Europeans have done well to keep the JCPOA on thin life support during the Trump administration, even though the Iranians have gone off the tracks,” he said. But, he added, all the Iranian increases in centrifuges and uranium enrichment are reversible.
Iran was largely in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal until Trump pulled out of the agreement and dialed up a so-called maximum pressure campaign, replete with sanctions on every corner of the Iranian economy. Even humanitarian aid was affected.
In an interview with the BBC’s Persian-language network, the U.S. envoy Malley said, “The maximum pressure has failed. … It’s been bad for the U.S., for Iran, for the region.”
“What we want to do is get into a position where the U.S. can lift sanctions again, and Iran can come back into compliance with its nuclear commitments under the deal,” he added.
But many supporters of the nuclear pact, including some European officials, believe that the Biden administration needs to own up to America’s role in undermining the deal—even if the damage was inflicted by the previous administration.
“I think there was a need for a mea culpa from the Biden administration,” Vaez said. “The maximum pressure campaign inflicted not only economic damage on the country but also cost Iranian lives in the middle of a deadly pandemic. The Biden administration acted as if all this harm inflicted on Iran was done by a different country. It didn’t take any responsibility for the mistakes committed by its predecessor. That is going to have long-term implications for Iranian-U.S. relations.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch