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President Biden, who has made no secret of his desire to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, continues to send Tehran the wrong message.
“We’re prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program,” he told the Munich Security Conference on Friday, echoing the new line that his administration announced the previous day.
This new phase of the Biden strategy should have surprised no one, but it sheds light on the administration’s misguided approach to the Islamic Republic.
Biden and his team have long said that their intent is to return the U.S. to the 2015 agreement, which doesn’t address Iran’s missile program and support for regional proxies, so that it may negotiate a follow-on accord on those issues. But, these officials say, before the U.S. lifts the requisite sanctions to make this return, Iran must first return to compliance with the deal and stop enriching uranium beyond what it permits.
During a call on Thursday afternoon, senior administration officials told reporters for the first time that the U.S. would accept EU offers to moderate discussions between the JCPOA parties, including Iran. That announcement followed two noteworthy measures taken by the U.S. at the U.N. earlier that day: The administration reversed the Trump administration’s position that the U.N. ought to enforce “snapback” sanctions against Iran, and it stopped enforcing stringent travel measures on Iranian diplomats that had been in place, bringing them in line with the restrictions on other countries, such as Russia and China.
In spite of these conciliatory moves, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed on Friday afternoon that the U.S. will not be lifting sanctions before its talks with Iran.
The Iranians believe otherwise, or at least they hope to push the administration into relenting, freeing up the regional proxies that languished under the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign. Though the Biden team is reportedly still split on how to proceed, nothing that’s happened recently would lead them to conclude that they can’t eventually succeed.
After Shiite militias in Iraq lobbed rockets at a U.S. base in Erbil earlier this week, the administration declined to immediately assign responsibility for the attack, even though a group backed by Iran duly claimed responsibility. “We’ve seen Iraqi militia, Iranian-backed militia in many cases, be responsible,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR. “But to date, it’s too early to know who is responsible for this one.”
Thankfully, no U.S. service members were killed, but one was injured. What will the administration do if the worst comes to pass in another attack?
Instead of signaling to the Iranians, as President Trump did, that the U.S. will hold them directly accountable for the actions of the militias under their control, the new team appears to have let it slide without a direct warning to Iran.
And as Yemen’s Houthi rebels continued their assault on civilian areas, Biden lifted the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of the Iran-backed group.
Worst of all, though, the Biden administration has extended this olive branch to Tehran following a report this month revealing that the International Atomic Energy Agency found new Iranian uranium-metal production in excess of JCPOA limits. Meanwhile, Iran is threatening to curtail IAEA inspections following a February 23 deadline set by parliament if the U.S. doesn’t cave.
Contrary to what some Iran appeasers argue, this bad behavior is not the result of the Trump-era maximum-pressure campaign. Tehran is escalating now because it sees an opportunity to strong-arm Biden into lifting sanctions first.
Since Thursday, the calls for talks by Jake Sullivan, Blinken, and the president himself have been taken less as a sign of magnanimity than of weakness. Already, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has reiterated his demands for sanctions relief as a prerequisite for any talks about U.S. reentry into the JCPOA.
At least the administration hasn’t budged on sanctions — yet. But unless Biden is forceful in pushing back on Iran’s tests of his resolve, yet more will come and perhaps force the kind of crisis that the president wants to avert.