In a desperate bid to save its economy, Russia has been making demands that could kill President Joe Biden’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear agreement.
Strangely enough, that might be a blessing for Biden.
The Kremlin — battered by Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine — is trying to undermine the international negotiations with Iran. The last-minute moves have rattled Tehran and infuriated other countries who have spent roughly a year in talks to restore the nuclear deal.
U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that Russia’s intransigence could completely derail the negotiations.
But Moscow’s effort also comes as Biden faces growing pressure in Washington to abandon the agreement. Republicans have long opposed the deal, but concerns about its efficacy appear to be rising among Biden’s fellow Democrats.
Some career staffers at the State Department and others who work on Iran issues — including those who supported the original deal when it was struck in 2015 — are wary of restoring it now, according to current and former U.S. officials. They worry it is weaker today and that reviving it could involve giving Iran undeserved sanctions relief.
At least two members of the U.S. negotiating team have left in recent months over concerns about the talks’ direction. Ariane Tabatabai and Richard Nephew are political appointees, not career staffers, but are well-regarded experts on Iran. People familiar with the pair’s thinking said they thought the United States was leaning toward giving up too much in sanctions relief and that a restored deal would not be strong enough.
The Russian machinations may ultimately offer Biden a face-saving excuse to walk away from the agreement. In doing so, he and other Democrats would face less political heat in the run-up to midterm elections. And if attacked by progressives and others for not restoring the deal, they could simply blame Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Russia, in cynically attempting to leverage the Iran deal to obtain its own sanctions exemptions, may have done the Biden administration a favor,” said Michael Singh, a longtime skeptic of the agreement who served at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. “Moscow’s gambit only underscores that a new approach is needed.”
The Biden administration has so far rejected Russia’s efforts to tie its Ukraine-related problems with the nuclear deal, even threatening to find ways to push Russia out of the talks. That, however, could invite more challenges down the line, because a reconfigured agreement without Russia would likely be subject to congressional review.
Privately, some current and former Biden administration officials agree that restoring the deal won’t have the benefits it once did. For one, Iran’s advances in nuclear know-how in recent years could make any cap on uranium enrichment more a freeze than a death knell to a bomb. They argue, however, that even a weaker nuclear agreement may be worth restoring for the benefits that still exist, including the ability to monitor Iran’s activities on the ground.
“From a national security perspective this is still the right move,” one Biden administration official said. “From a political perspective it’s going to be a headache.”
A more-for-less return?
Last week, a group of 70 Democratic and 70 Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken raising concerns about the nuclear negotiations.
The carefully worded missive did not outright insist that Biden abandon the current talks, which have been held in Vienna over recent months. But it made clear that lawmakers are more united than back in 2015 — when the initial nuclear deal was reached — that any new deal needs to take into account Iran’s other troubling actions.
The letter urged the Biden administration to pursue “an agreement or set of agreements with Iran that are comprehensive in nature to address the full range of threats that Iran poses to the region.” Those threats, they wrote, includes Iran’s ballistic missile activity and its support for terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The Democrats who signed the agreement include some moderates and liberals, such as Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Andy Kim (D-N.J) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). It was a sign that, while most of Biden’s fellow Democrats will likely support returning to the 2015 agreement, as other letters have suggested, there nonetheless are many with reservations. Many hardline GOP members, meanwhile, are warning Biden that a deal that lacks congressional support will be revoked (again) once a Republican wins back the White House.
Such concerns are privately shared by some officials at the State Department and other parts of the executive branch, including career staffers who have spent years working on Iran nuclear issues. A serving U.S. official familiar with the deal confirmed that some in the career ranks fear that, in restoring the deal, the United States will be giving too much sanctions relief in return for increasingly weaker nuclear restrictions.
A former career State Department official who worked on Iran sanctions issues echoed the fears. Like several others interviewed for this article, the former official requested anonymity to speak about sensitive matters.
The original Iran deal, he said, “was a revolutionary nonproliferation agreement and removed the most worrisome element of the Iran threat, but considering the advances in Iran’s centrifuge program, and with some of the provisions due to expire in the coming years, we’re giving up far more than we’re getting this time.”
The White House is still pursuing a deal. “Our objective is to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, and we believe that the best way to do that is for all the parties to work constructively and with urgency to resolve remaining issues and return to full compliance and implementation of the JCPOA as soon as possible,” Emily Horne, National Security Council spokesperson, said.
But Gabriel Noronha, a former Trump administration official opposed to restoring the nuclear agreement, cited career U.S. government officials worried about the extent of sanctions relief the United States is considering offering Iran as a source for a lengthy Twitter thread, which laid out some of the details of the negotiations.
The original deal was reached during Barack Obama’s presidency, after years of talks among Iran, the United States and other leading countries, including Russia and China. It lifted an array of nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its atomic program. The deal had limits, however, including provisions that would expire over time, technically starting within the next three years. (Supporters of restoring the deal argue that the most important provisions won’t expire for several more years and some elements last in perpetuity.)
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it wasn’t comprehensive or long-lasting enough. He reimposed the previous economic sanctions and heaped new ones on Iran, including many leveled ostensibly for reasons other than Iran’s nuclear activities. About a year later, Iran began abandoning its commitments in return, and it has since made serious advances in its nuclear program, including enriching uranium to an unusually high level of 60 percent. (Weapons-grade uranium is typically at 90 percent enrichment, which is not that far a step away.)
Biden took office promising to restore the nuclear deal so long as Iran reimposed the limits on its program and agreed to sit down for follow-on talks about a bigger, more comprehensive agreement. Biden named Rob Malley, a longtime Middle East hand, to lead U.S. negotiators in Vienna to restore the deal.
Despite an array of obstacles over the past year, including the election of a more hardline Iranian government, the talks to restore the agreement had been making progress in recent months. But there has been little mention from the U.S. side lately of future talks about a follow-on deal, indicating that it’s no longer a condition from Washington to restore the original agreement.
Those who worry about reviving the deal further point to how much knowledge Iranians have gained over the past few years as they’ve resumed work on their nuclear program — technical know-how that cannot be erased by an agreement. A restored deal also is likely to result in a shortened breakout time (the period needed to produce enough enriched uranium for a weapon) of just six months, whereas the 2015 deal pegged Iran to roughly a year.
A better option, some skeptics of returning to the deal say, is continuing with and adding more sanctions on Iran in an effort to push it to agree to new talks about a better agreement. Supporters of restoring the 2015 deal say that’s the strategy that Trump tried, and it didn’t work.
Malley has declined to divulge specifics about what is under consideration in the talks, including what sanctions the United States may be willing to lift. But among the most contentious are Trump’s labeling of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. Iran wants that designation lifted. The IRGC sanctions were technically not imposed in response to Iran’s nuclear activities, however, making them legally and politically tricky to lift.
Trump administration officials insist that the legal reasoning behind every sanction they imposed on Iran was explicitly laid out: for instance, to thwart Iran’s human rights abuses or its terrorist activities. But many Biden administration officials say the true purpose of many of the Trump-era sanctions was to make it harder to restore the nuclear deal, and that some may have to be lifted — even if they’re not officially nuclear sanctions.
“We know the Trump administration erected a sanctions wall precisely to make it difficult for a future administration to return to the deal. That was not inadvertent. It was by design,” a senior Biden administration official said. “So yes, some bitter pills to swallow, but that is the cost of undoing Trump’s reckless decision.”
Russia’s new rules
The progress made over many months of talks appears to have screeched to a halt in recent days because of Russia.
Moscow is demanding that a restoration of the agreement include promises that future Russian trade with Iran will be exempt from U.S. and European Union sanctions. The demand comes as the Russian economy has been brought to its knees by Western sanctions imposed over Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin appears to be angling for a way to keep an economic relationship with Iran even as it is increasingly isolated from much of the rest of the world’s economy. But it’s also putting Iran in an awkward position: Tehran wants to get more of its oil back on the market as soon as possible, especially now that Russia’s crucial oil and gas sector faces sanctions and there’s more demand for Iranian oil. The Kremlin, meanwhile, wouldn’t be sad if Iran’s oil stays off the international market, giving Moscow’s oil and gas more leverage over Europe.
In any case, U.S. officials insist they’re not going to give into Russia’s demands to tie Ukraine issues with the nuclear agreement’s restoration.
The problem is that the original Iran nuclear deal involves the Russians taking special roles in helping Iran implement the agreement, such as shipping out Iran’s excess enriched uranium. If Russia refuses to play that role, the deal is once again undermined.
The senior Biden administration official confirmed a report in The Wall Street Journal that the United States would consider crafting an alternative deal that sidelines Russia.
Such a new agreement, though, could lead to more political scrutiny in Washington because it is likely to trigger a legally required review by Congress. In fact, some lawmakers argued that even an agreement to return to the original deal triggers that review, a stance Biden administration officials privately dismiss.
The diplomatic wrangling comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, has grown more limited in its ability to monitor the Iranian nuclear program since Tehran began to restrict the scope of inspections in February of last year. The agency’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, has warned on numerous occasions that his inspectors are “flying blind” and stressed the need to revive the nuclear deal so as to restore the strict inspections structure.
U.S. officials acknowledge that time is running short and that a revived nuclear deal probably won’t be as strong as back in 2015. But those who support restoring it point out that it’s better than the current situation: Iran’s breakout time is now roughly a month. They say it’s critical to revive the deal if only to give the United States and its allies some breathing room and the time to come up with a future plan for dealing with Iran’s other troubling activities.
Reviving the 2015 deal “was always going to be a political headache, and we know some moderate Democrats would have to oppose – that was baked in,” the senior official said. “But again, think of the politics if Iran becomes a [nuclear] threshold state on Biden’s watch — or worse.”