Morning Brief

Iran Deal Talks Spark Hope of U.S. Return

The surprise talks come as the clock ticks toward Iran’s presidential contest.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the start of a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House on April 1.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the start of a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House on April 1. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Iran deal participants meet on a future U.S. return, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hosts his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, and a train derailment in Taiwan kills at least 36 people.

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Iran Deal Participants Talk U.S. Return

The remaining participants in the Iran nuclear deal hold a virtual meeting Friday to discuss a U.S. return to the 2015 agreement. The talks provide much needed momentum to an issue that has devolved into a stalemate between the United States and Iran.

Even though the United States is not part of Friday’s meeting, the Biden administration has welcomed it, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price calling it a “positive step.”

That Biden’s team seems in little rush to reenter the deal has irritated progressives, who have lamented his cautious approach in foreign policy even as he has moved boldly on the domestic front.

Although the Biden administration has signaled time and again that it’s ready to meet with Iran, it has refused to consider Tehran’s terms. Iran’s complaint is relatively straightforward: Biden, by continuing former President Donald Trump’s sanctions, has not provided the goodwill necessary to prove the United States is sincere in looking to improve relations.

The administration has taken baby steps: On Feb. 18, it lifted U.N. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration last September, and Thursday it extended a sanctions waiver that allows Iraq to import energy from Iran.

Biden’s reticence on an immediate U.S. return to the deal is partially down to fears of upsetting those in the U.S. Congress opposed to rapprochement with Iran. Dueling letters have been drafted by senators pulling in different directions. One letter, co-signed by a bipartisan group of 43 senators, called on the president to expand the scope of a future Iran agreement to include its nonnuclear threats.

Another, drafted by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine, is currently being circulated for further signatures and advocates a “compliance for compliance” approach. Describing Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign as a failure, the senators propose a simple solution. “Should Iran be willing to return to compliance with the limitations set by the JCPOA, the United States should be willing to rejoin the deal and provide the sanctions relief required under the agreement,” they write.

Friday’s meeting raises hopes of a breakthrough as the clock begins to tick toward the Iranian presidential election campaign and its culmination on June 18. Iran has recently created some leverage of its own, signing a strategic cooperation pact with China that includes plans for an Iranian-Chinese bank that would make it easier for the country to evade sanctions.

What We’re Following Today

Sullivan hosts talks on North Korea. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet with his Japanese and South Korean equivalents Friday in Annapolis, Maryland, for talks that will include a preview of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: “Denuclearization will remain at the center of American policy towards North Korea,” setting up an immediate challenge for negotiations with the Kim regime, which considers its nuclear weapons essential to its continued existence. Friday’s talks come as South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong begins a two-day visit to China, where he will meet with his counterpart, Wang Yi. 

India’s surge. India recorded 81,466 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the highest number of new daily cases in the past six months. India has moved to increase vaccine eligibility in the face of the surge; on Thursday, it lowered the threshold to those over 45. Some 65 million vaccine doses have been distributed so far, though at this pace India is unlikely to meet the government target of 300 million people vaccinated by July.

Tragedy in Hualien. At least 36 people were killed in Taiwan after a passenger train derailed in a tunnel near the town of Hualien. Officials said at least 72 passengers were injured in the accident and that emergency services were still trying to access four carriages inside the tunnel.

Keep an Eye On

Colombia-Venezuela tensions. Thousands of Venezuelans living on the Colombian border have been displaced in recent weeks as a Venezuelan military campaign against Colombian guerrillas intensifies. At least 5,000 people have fled across the border into Colombia, local officials said, with at least 40 percent of them children. Venezuela has accused the Colombian government of being behind the guerrilla factions, while Colombia says the violence is due to Venezuela’s attempts to control drug trafficking in the area.

Dam discussions. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan meet this weekend in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for further talks on a dispute surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The discussions come after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a warning to Ethiopia, saying there would be “instability that no one can imagine” if Egypt’s water access were endangered by the dam on the upper Nile.

Russia’s “muscle-flexing.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “muscle-flexing” over an apparent Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s border. His comments come as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded hundreds of cease-fire violations in recent days, including 493 on March 26 alone. Russia dismissed Ukraine’s accusations, reserving the right to move troops and equipment around its own territory. “It should not worry anyone and does not pose a threat to anyone,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Odds and Ends

The United States has lifted sanctions against an Italian pizzeria owner after acknowledging a case of mistaken identity. Alessandro Bazzoni, who owns the restaurant Dolce Gusto in Verona, had his business placed under U.S. sanctions in January on the last full day of the Trump administration, as the outgoing White House team sought to punish a different Bazzoni for his ties to Venezuela’s oil sector. The U.S. Treasury Department removed the sanctions on Wednesday, much to the relief of Bazzoni.

“At the end of the Trump administration, they were doing a lot really, really fast with respect to Venezuela, Iran, and China,” Tim O’Toole, a sanctions specialist, told Reuters. “When you move that fast, you tend to make mistakes.” 

That’s it for today.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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