Team Biden is planning to hold on to what it apparently sees as its “Trump card”— the Trump administration’s sanctions against Iran oil exports that have gutted the Iranian economy.
by Gareth Porter
Part 2 - The new Biden coercive strategy
The Biden administration is banking on a scenario in which Iran agrees to cease its enrichment to 20% and reverse other major concessions Iran made as part of the 2015 agreement.
The Biden team then states it would start a new set of negotiations with Iran, in which the United States would use its leverage to pressure Iran into extending the timeline of its major commitments under the deal. Further, Tehran will be required to accept a modification in its missile program, as European allies have urged.
The Biden team’s Iran strategy was not hastily cobbled together just before inauguration. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan outlined it in an interview last June with Jon Alterman, the Middle East program direct at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You can get some early wins on the nuclear program but tie long-term sanctions relief to progress on both [nuclear and other issues] files,” Sullivan explained.
Sullivan made it clear the primary goal of his proposed strategy was to constrain Iran by imposing extended restraints on its nuclear program. The idea, he explained, was “to see, is it possible to get a short term win on the nuclear file to basically get Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA and to then put the longer term disposition of Iran’s nuclear program on a negotiating track.”
Biden’s future NSC director implied that US sanctions would be exploited to draw Iran into talks with Israel and Saudi Arabia on missiles and other issues, but not at the expense of U.S. aims on the nuclear issue. The assumption that the US would maintain its coercive leverage on Iran is at the center of the policy. As Sullivan said, summarizing an article he co-authored for Foreign Affairs, “the U.S. should say, ‘We are going to be here applying various forms of leverage, including economic leverage as well as military dimensions, apart from whether we have 20,000 more troops or 10,000 less troops there’.”
At the heart of Biden’s strategy is the demand for Iran to return immediately to full compliance with the nuclear agreement. Before Iran rejoins the pact, the new administration expects it to reverse the moves it made to increase the level and the speed of enrichment in response to Trump’s withdrawal.
The Biden administration’s demand ignores the fact Iran scrupulously observed all of the JCPOA’s provisions for two years after the Trump administration had withdrawn from the agreement. It was only after the Trump administration reintroduced old sanctions outlawed by the agreement and introduced crushing new sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from exporting oil that Iran began enriching uranium at higher levels.
By piling up onerous demands while offering few concessions of its own, the new administration conveys the clear message that it is in no hurry to return to the JCPOA. Secretary of State of Tony Blinken stated in his confirmation testimony that the Biden administration was “a long way” from returning to the deal and said nothing about reversing any of the sanctions that were introduced or reintroduced by the Trump administration after it quit the agreement.
Robert J. Einhorn, a key Obama policymaker on the Iran nuclear issue as State Department Special Adviser on Arms Control and Proliferation who has maintained contacts with Biden insiders, has provided an explanation for that ambiguous message. He suggested that the Biden administration aims to press Iran for a deal falling well short of full restoration of the JCPOA — an “interim agreement” involving “rollback” of part of Iran’s current enrichment activities and going beyond the JCPOA in return for “partial sanctions relief.”
That relief would include “some” of the revenues from oil sales that have been blocked in foreign bank accounts. Einhorn appeared to confirm that the new Biden strategy would be based in holding on to the leverage conferred by Trump sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sectors, which have crippled the country/s economy.