Biden aides debate how, or if, to save original Iran deal

President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the United States will rejoin the original Iran nuclear deal if Tehran resumes complying with the terms of the agreement, with the goal of laying the groundwork for an even stronger follow-up non-proliferation pact.

But inside the Biden administration, debates have churned among top aides over whether this is the best path or whether to take other, potentially more complicated, routes that may sidestep the original deal, according to five people familiar with the discussions.

Meanwhile, supporters of the 2015 deal are worried that Biden appears in no rush to return to it. They fear his cautious pace will let the deal’s critics, including key Democrats and Iranian politicians eyeing an upcoming election, shape the debate. They also worry about ongoing Iranian efforts to pressure Biden to act faster and lift sanctions as part of a return to the original deal; Iran’s latest machinations include imposing a deadline next week to limit the access of international nuclear inspectors.

Biden is scheduled to address world leaders Friday at a virtual session of the Munich Security Conference, remarks sure to be watched carefully by Iran as well as other countries trying to divine his intentions for the nuclear deal.

The State Department said Thursday that the United States would accept an expected European Union invitation to attend a gathering of parties to the original deal, including Iran, the timing of which was not immediately clear.

In a briefing with reporters, a senior State Department official called the prospect of meeting the Iranians face-to-face “a step” more than a breakthrough.

Overall, developments so far suggest that a full restoration of the original deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), may be a far messier, longer-lasting set of negotiations than what many observers had expected – if it happens at all.

“There is a window of opportunity that simply will not last,” warned Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The slow pace of deliberations on the part of the United States will jeopardize Biden’s stated goal, which is to restore the agreement and to build on the JCPOA.”

But there are “a lot of different views” within the administration, one of the people familiar with the discussions said, adding, “I think there’s an instinct to return to the deal, but that’s not a preordained outcome.”

“I don’t get the sense they have a timeline, like they don’t have dates and times” for reentering the deal, a Capitol Hill Democratic aide added.

How fast to move — and how big?

One internal administration debate about the next steps has largely boiled down to this: Whether to aim for a return to the original nuclear deal first or seek a broader deal from the start. A broader deal could possibly include non-nuclear aspects, such as limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program, and have provisions that last longer than the original deal or are permanent.

Either way, one option on the table is to have some sort of interim agreement that can build confidence on both sides.

The interim agreement would not necessarily look like the original deal, people familiar with the discussions said. It could involve giving Iran some limited sanctions relief — such as allowing oil sales — in exchange for Tehran halting some of the moves it has made since President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement, such as enriching uranium to 20 percent purity.

One senior Biden administration official, however, insisted that the debate has passed. The agreed-upon goal remains to return to the original nuclear deal if Iran complies with it, the official said. But exactly what steps must be taken to achieve that goal and at what pace are still a matter of debate and discussion, the official said.

The people familiar with the discussions did not know or declined to say who among Biden aides was arguing for which tactics. Some stressed that the administration, not even a month old, is still filling key positions at the State Department, White House and beyond that are relevant to the Iran discussion.

Three of the people, however, noted that Brett McGurk, a senior Middle East official on the National Security Council staff, is among the more hawkish voices on Iran – and that national security adviser Jake Sullivan at times takes a harder line than many of his colleagues.

Both of these senior national security officials may be more inclined to aim for a bigger deal immediately, rather than trying to resurrect the 2015 version, people familiar with the discussions said. That being said, Sullivan recently declared that containing Iran’s nuclear program is a “critical early priority” of the administration, signaling an eagerness to resolve the standoff.

Rob Malley, Biden’s special envoy for the Iran talks, is known to be more of an advocate for a return to the original nuclear deal. Others likely to be on his side include Jeff Prescott, a top official in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. The people familiar with the discussions said they weren’t entirely certain where Secretary of State Antony Blinken stands.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council did not offer comment. A spokesperson for the State Department also did not immediately offer comment.

Allies and roadblocks in the Senate

Washington politics, too, are a factor, some analysts say.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is one of several Democrats who joined Republicans in opposing the original deal during the Obama years. (Menendez also opposed Trump’s decision to walk away from the deal without what the New Jersey senator considered a decent back up plan to constrain Iran.)

Menendez has pushed Biden to take a tough stance and said the president should not give Iran “significant sanctions relief” before it returns to the negotiating table.

Because Menendez plays a key role in Senate confirmation hearings for Biden nominees, there’s extra sensitivity about angering him when it comes to Iran, two of the people familiar with the Biden team’s discussions said.

The Iran nuclear deal isn’t America’s alone

The 2015 JCPOA lifted an array of U.S. and international economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe restrictions on the Islamist-led country’s nuclear program.

The deal was an international one: the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Iran were partners in the negotiation. The United Nations and the European Union also played key roles.

Struck during the presidency of Barack Obama, its supporters hailed it for dramatically curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, but its opponents cast it as too weak and too generous in terms of the sanctions relief it offered Iran in return.

After railing against the agreement for years, Trump formally pulled out in May 2018. The former president argued that the agreement was too narrow because it dealt only with Iran’s nuclear program and not other malign actions by Tehran, which has been a U.S. adversary for four decades.Trump also said he did not like the fact that some of the deal’s provisions would expire.

In the months and years after pulling the U.S. from the JCPOA, Trump not only reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions that had been lifted under the 2015 deal, but also added on new ones targeting an array of Iranian entities.

The beefed-up sanctions regime will complicate any return to the deal, especially given that many of the sanctions would penalize institutions from other countries – including U.S. allies in Europe – that want to do business in Iran.

Iran has technically remained a party to the agreement, which is still functional to a limited degree. But since the U.S. walked away from it, Tehran has taken several steps that have put it out of compliance and closer to building a bomb. The moves, analysts say, have been part of a campaign aimed at pushing America back to the negotiating table while also pressuring European leaders to find ways to ease the substantial economic pain the sanctions are causing Iran.

Brinksmanship and bluster from Tehran

Recently, Iran has warned that starting next week it will take steps to scale back the enhanced access it gives to international inspectors who monitor its nuclear program under what’s commonly called the “additional protocol.” However, Iran will continue to allow inspectors to access its facilities under its basic agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In a joint statement released Thursday, Blinken and his counterparts from France, Germany and Britain, called on Iran not to proceed with its clampdown on inspections. The three urged Iran “to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”

Many Biden aides are hesitant to appear as if they are capitulating to Iranian pressure by making deal-related moves to coincide with next week’s deadline on the additional protocol, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The joint statement also stated that “Secretary Blinken reiterated that, as President Biden has said, if Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.”

Can Europe move the timetable?

The expected European Union invitation for the United States to rejoin the original participants in the deal will likely lead to the first discussions – at least in a publicly acknowledged way – between the Biden administration and Iran. Analysts anticipate that the gathering will take place in March at what was already a tentatively planned meeting of the joint commission that oversees the nuclear deal’s implementation.

Separately, the Biden administration on Thursday told the U.N. Security Council that it was rescinding a Trump administration claim last year that all U.N. sanctions had been reimposed on Iran, according to a Reuters report. Trump aides made that assertion by insisting the U.S. could still trigger a “snap back” of the sanctions despite having left the nuclear deal, a claim rejected by most members of the Security Council.

The rescinding of the Trump claim may appease Iran to some extent. But broadly speaking, people familiar with the Biden administration’s discussions said it has done little – at least publicly – to give Tehran hope that a resumption of the deal, and an end to sanctions, is likely anytime soon.

Even the U.S. rhetoric so far, from various podiums and Biden himself, has emphasized that Iran is out of compliance with the agreement, rather than acknowledging that the United States first initiated the breach of terms.

Malley has spent his short time so far as envoy reaching out to the other parties to the 2015 agreement, including Russia and China, but not to Iran itself, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Malley also has been in touch with representatives of Israel as well as Arab countries, people familiar with the discussions said. The Israelis and some key Arab partners of the United States opposed the 2015 agreement and have asked Washington to consult with them or even give them a seat at the table on future negotiations with Iran.

Some advocates of a speedy return to the 2015 agreement argue that time is of the essence, in part because Iranian presidential elections are set for June. The Iranian politicians likely to triumph are those who are even more anti-American than the ones who negotiated the deal.

Still, those who argue against any quick U.S. return to the deal point out that no matter who wins the Iranian election, the economic pain the country is suffering from sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic will force a return to the negotiating table.

“Iran is in desperate financial and political straits right now,” said Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department official. “We have no reason to relent on the pressure, especially to get back to a deal which is already well on the way to expiring.”