For Biden, Iran Presents a Tough Road From Promise to Policy

WASHINGTON – President


The national security group foresees a bumpy road ahead in fulfilling one of its key foreign policy promises: Convince Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal and then push for a successor agreement that imposes stricter restrictions.

From the first days of its mandate, the new government expanded the new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia and joined the Paris climate agreement and the UN World Health Organization.

But his hope that Iran will join the nuclear deal is a much more thorny prospect, and U.S. sanctions policy could be an obstacle to a quick diplomatic solution.

As part of the 2015 agreement, the United States agreed to ease a series of sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Separate US sanctions against Iran, targeting terrorism, ballistic missile development and human rights violations, were not part of the nuclear deal.


What path have you mapped out to return to an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program? Join the discussion below.

If Iran comes back, so do we, Mr. Secretary of State.

Anthony Blinken,

who was confirmed by senators on Tuesday, testified last week.

Over the past four years, however, the Trump administration has not only lifted the sanctions provided for in the 2015 agreement, but has also imposed anti-terrorist sanctions on numerous sectors of the Iranian economy or coupled them with sanctions against ballistic missile development. Use of anti-terrorism powers,

Donald Trump

directed against the oil and financial sectors essential to the country’s economy, a strategy aimed in part at making a return to the nuclear deal more difficult.

While senior officials in the Biden administration have said they intend to maintain some terrorism and human rights sanctions – and possibly impose new ones under the same leadership – Iranian leaders have insisted that the United States lift all sanctions imposed by Trump.

Timing is also an issue. Iran said the United States should take the first step by lifting sanctions, while Biden said Tehran must first reach an agreement.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif calls on the United States to lift all sanctions imposed, modified or renamed since Trump’s inauguration.


Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Shutterstock

The new Biden administration may yet save the nuclear deal.

Javad Zarif,

Iran’s foreign minister wrote Friday on the Foreign Affairs magazine website. The administration should begin by unconditionally lifting, with full effect, all sanctions that have been imposed, modified or renamed since Trump took office.

Middle East officials and analysts say that even without the sanctions dispute, it would be difficult to convince Iran to abide by the Iran deal and then accept even tighter restrictions in a future agreement. We’re a long way from that, Blinken said last week.

Since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018 and stepped up enforcement of sanctions, Tehran has responded by violating the deal’s enrichment limits, storing enriched uranium, and banning research into advanced centrifuges that could produce fuel for possible nuclear weapons more quickly. It has also begun construction of an assembly line to produce uranium metal that can be used to make the core of nuclear warheads.

President-elect Joe Biden said he expects the United States to return to the Iran nuclear deal he helped negotiate in 2015 under the Obama administration. Gerald F. Seib of WSJ explains why it won’t be as easy as it sounds. Photo: Abedin Taherkenareh/Shutterstock (originally published November 16, 2020).

Most of these measures can be reversed, and current and past officials see them as a way for Tehran to build up negotiating capital. But these measures have also reduced the time it would have taken Tehran to assemble enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb to a few months a year.

The Biden administration’s promise not only to revive the 2015 agreement, but also to negotiate a replacement agreement with tighter restrictions and broader coverage, may be an even more important test.

One of the goals of a follow-up agreement, Biden said, would be to extend the strict restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, which under the terms of the 2015 deal were to be relaxed over time. These include measures that limit the amount of uranium Iran can store, limit the purity of the material to 3.67%, which is far from military grade, and limit the number of centrifuges Iran can use.

These sunset clauses have been sharply criticized by some legislators in the US, as well as by representatives of Israel and the Arab Gulf States. They say they are allowing Iran to gradually build up its nuclear infrastructure and its potential nuclear weapons option.

Another goal of the follow-up agreement is to cover Iran’s ballistic-missile program, which the 2015 agreement discouraged but did not ban, Biden said.

Mr. Zarif wrote that Iran was not ready to renegotiate the terms of the 2015 agreement, but he did not rule out the possibility that Tehran could accept additional restrictions in a future deal in exchange for further concessions. However, Iran has long argued that its ballistic missile program is necessary as a counterweight to the advanced air power of its Arab and Israeli opponents.

Iran’s ballistic missile program is discouraged but not banned by the 2015 agreement.


/Associated Press

A follow-up agreement could also force the Biden administration into difficult diplomatic maneuvers. First, nuclear sanctions must be lifted if Iran is to meet the 2015 deadline for the accord. But the government would then have to look for new forms of pressure – either threats of new sanctions, modification of old sanctions, or offers of more economic incentives to persuade Tehran to accept tighter restrictions.

The 2015 agreement has always been a way to buy time and has never been a permanent solution.

Gary Samore,

Director of the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, expert on weapons of mass destruction and former president.

Barack Obama

National Security Council.

Since both sides want it, they should find a way to revive the 2015 agreement, Samore added. But I don’t see how we can negotiate a follow-up agreement quickly. Iran will resist all our demands for expansion and tightening of nuclear restrictions.

Although the 2015 agreement did not take the form of a treaty requiring Senate approval, the Biden administration has pledged to consult with U.S. lawmakers, including critics who have insisted on using Trump’s influence.

Only a policy of containment, not appeasement, can succeed.

Senator James Risch

Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week.

To facilitate diplomacy, Biden is expected to appoint a special envoy to consult with European allies involved in the deal and other foreign partners, including Israel, before meeting with the Iranians.

In recent days, Biden discussed Iranian nuclear issues with Russian President…

Vladimir Putin

and the President of France

Emmanuel Macron.

Biden officials have not said much about which sanctions they can enforce and which they can lift.

Brian O’Toole,

A former Treasury official and sanctions expert at the Atlantic Council said the Biden administration could lift the effects of terrorism-related sanctions under the authority of the Treasury Department rather than officially lifting them. But he added that it was not clear whether Iran would be satisfied with such a procedure.

There is a way to do that technically, but such negotiations can take time, O’Toole said. The hope that a full agreement on Iran will be reached overnight may be misplaced.

-Lawrence Norman in Brussels and Sun Engel Rasmussen in London contributed to this article.

Sunsets in Iran – Agreement.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement contains a number of provisions that have been relaxed over time – commonly referred to as sunset provisions. Certain measures, such as extended access for UN nuclear inspectors, should be permanent. Others have expired or are approaching their expiration date. Here are some of the milestones that will be measured from 2015, when implementation of the agreement will begin:

  • After five years, the ban on major arms purchases and deliveries to and from Iran has expired.
  • After 8 years, the ban on the import and export of ballistic missile technology will expire.
  • After 8.5 years, Iran could test up to 30 IR-6 and 30 IR-8 centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
  • After ten years, the 5,600 less sophisticated IR-1 centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium will be phased out. The Iranians would then be able to use more sophisticated centrifuges, provided the total production of enriched uranium remains the same.
  • After 15 years, the upper limit of 300 kg of uranium, enriched to 3.67 percent, sufficient for civilian purposes but far from military, has been lifted. The enrichment level limit has also been reduced. At this stage, Iran can collect as much uranium as it wants, at any level of enrichment.
  • After 15 years, the ban on uranium enrichment at Fordow’s underground facility will expire, allowing Iran to restore full use of one of its largest facilities.
  • After 15 years, the ban on heavy water reactors and the reprocessing of spent fuel has been lifted.

Source : Association for Arms Control

Email Ian Talley at [email protected] and Michael R. Gordon at [email protected].

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