Finally. I don’t know who Joe Biden and Tony Blinken have been listening to till now regarding relations with Iran and the JCPOA nuclear deal. But it sure wasn’t the advisors who persuaded him during the campaign to say he wanted to immediately return to JCPOA after he became president.
Instead, Biden and his secretary of state in the past few weeks made impossible demands of Iran in order for the US to return to talks. They said Iran had to return to uranium enrichment standards of the deal before we would sit down to talk to them.
This was an exceedingly strange demand considering that it was Pres. Trump who withdrew from the deal, not Iran. Any actions the latter took outside its parameters were in response to Trump tearing up the agreement and walking away. So for Biden now to act as if Iran’s violations were the main barrier to resumption of talks was ass-backwards. Not to mention that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign had failed to humble Iran or force it to beg for mercy as the former administration had expected. In fact, Iran had more centrifuges and more highly enriched uranium by the end of Trump’s term than it had at the beginning. So to many experts like Fareed Zakharia and Ishaan Tharoor, who wrote questioning Biden’s refusal to constructively engage with Iran, our stance lacked coherence.
Today, the Biden administration made two critical admissions: it offered to rejoin JCPOA talks with Iran; and it withdrew a submission to the United Nations which initiated “snapback” provisions in the original deal that could be invoked by a party if another party to the deal violated it. The US also removed travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats which had made them virtual prisoners in their own diplomatic facilities.
Returning to the Trump’s snapback claim, our prior withdrawal rendered the request moot since we were no longer party to JCPOA. UN member states determined that we could no longer make demands that were incorporated in the agreement if we were no longer a party to it. The Trump request to restore sanctions was ignored by the other member states. Now Biden has essentially conceded Trump was wrong and the UN and other JCPOA parties were right.
This sets the stage for what could be productive talks whose goal would be to re-engage both Iran and the US in the original terms of JCPOA. But that it just the beginning of what is necessary. The five parties to this agreement must devise of way to provide real sanctions relief to Iran.
When the original deal was signed in 2018, Iranians had high hopes that sanctions would be substantially removed, or at least eased. This is turn, would offer economic benefits to average Iranians, raise their standard of living, and bring the country back into the family of nations engaged in normal trade relations.
Things didn’t turn out that way. It was harder than previously understood to undo sanctions provisions which had been written into law and required legislative remedies for removal. Nor would financial institutions or government agencies ease their own restrictions with the sword of US sanctions hanging over their heads.
Then the US election provided another major shock to the system with Trump’s election victory. Sanctions relief was no longer an option. In fact, the entire deal was in jeopardy. Indeed, within a year Trump had dumped it, as he promised he would during the campaign. As a result, the parties have a bad taste in their mouths based on past US performance. It is our country and not Iran which has something to prove. It is us who will have to prove our good faith.
And if we want to expand JCPOA to incorporate new issues like ballistic missiles, we will have to be prepared to be flexible in addressing Iran’s interests. It will not simply stop testing missiles because Israel or the US says it should. Iran has interests, and we will need to offer something of value to it in exchange.
For too long the world has looked upon Iran as a recalcitrant child who needs firm discipline–to be brought into line. Instead of seeing Iran as a mature nation with a clear sense of its interests and a willingness to approach achieving them in pragmatic fashion. That is more of what we will need to see future progress on JCPOA and whatever new agreement might come from it.
Anti-Iran Hawks Squawk
Anti-Iran hawks like Mike Pompeo and Bibi Netanyahu like to pile on demands of Iran, which they know cannot be successfully resolved. Then they say when their demands are not addressed under JCPOA that it means it is a failure and the policy of diplomatic engagement is as well. Perhaps the most salient example concerns supposed Iranian expansionist ambitions to be the major power in the region. They see Iran’s presence in Syria and Iraq, and the proxies it supports militarily in Yemen, and Lebanon as emblematic of Iran’s desire to exert Shiite hegemony over the greater Middle East.
These hawks have routinely said that for JCPOA to be satisfactory, it would have to restrain Iran and force it to renounce these alliances. This approach of course, beyond being hypocritical, neglects that key proponents of this view such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US, themselves project their own power and ambitions in the region. Israel has for decades invaded and attacked other frontline states it views as rivals or threats. It has made numerous alliances with proxy armies and militia in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, which did its bidding. Saudi Arabia too has deployed its own troops to bolster a faltering Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, and invaded Yemen to prevent a takeover by Houthi Shia forces. The US of course has mounted two major invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan to force political and military outcomes we viewed to be in our interest. Our efforts led to the deaths of millions of Arabs in these countries. Deaths which continue to this day.
So by all means, let’s call for all foreign powers to withdraw from their positions in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Palestine, Yemen. Let’s permit these nations to determine the right path forward without outsiders imposing their will. When Israel ends its bombing in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere; its repeated wars against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its Occupation of Palestine; then Iran could withdraw its forces from Syria and its arms shipments from Lebanon; and when Saudi Arabia and UAE withdraw their invading forces from Yemen, then Iran can cease the support its offering the Houthis there.
But of course neither the US, Israel or Saudis are willing to engage in such comprehensive thinking. The fault always lies with the other guy. Not with them. It’s his responsibility to give in because you, of course, couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong. Compromise? A word that’s not in your vocabulary. Why should you? This is the mark of extremist, maximalist strategic thinking. Not the approach of a mature, pragmatic nation. It is a recipe for ongoing disaster.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.