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 3 - Learning the wrong lesson from Obama’s coercive diplomacy
Biden’s foreign policy team is comprised largely of Obama administration officials who either initiated nuclear deal talks in 2012-2013 or who were involved in the later stages of the negotiations. NSC Director Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns were key figures in the early talks with Iran; Blinken oversaw the later phase of the negotiations as Deputy Secretary of State, and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was in charge of day-to-day negotiations with Iran on the JCPOA until the final round in Vienna in 2015.
So it should be no surprise that the Biden team is pursuing an Iran strategy similar to the one that the Obama administration followed in its negotiations with Iran on the JCPOA itself. The Obama administration proudly claimed success in increasing Iran’s “breakout time” for obtaining enough enriched uranium for a single bomb from two or three months to a year through the pressure of heavy sanctions. It believed it had secured a winning diplomatic hand in 2012 when it got European allies to buy into its coercive strategy of oil and banking sanctions that would cut deeply into Iran’s foreign currency earnings.
But Iran’s enrichment efforts before negotiations on the nuclear deal began in 2012 tell a very different story. As the IAEA reported at the time, between late 2011 and February 2013, Iran enriched 280 kg of uranium to 20 percent, which would have placed it well over the level regarded as sufficient for “breakout” to a bomb. Meanwhile, Iran roughly doubled the number of centrifuges capable of 20 percent enrichment at its Fordow enrichment facility.
Instead of storing the total amount of uranium enriched to 20 percent for a possible bomb, however, Iran did exactly the opposite: it immediately converted 40 percent of its total capacity of enriched uranium to power Iran’s reactor. What’s more, it did not take steps to make the new centrifuges at Fordow capable of enrichment.
Iran was clearly amassing its stockpile and enrichment capability as bargaining chips for future negotiations. During a September 2012 meeting with EU officials in Istanbul, Iran confirmed the strategy by offering to suspend its 20 percent enrichment in return for significant easing of Western sanctions.
The Obama administration believed its sanctions weapon would prevail over Iran’s diplomatic chips. But Iran persisted in asserting its right to more than a token enrichment program. In the very last days of the negotiations in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to retain language that would allow the United States to reimpose sanctions deep into the implementation of the agreement, as an Iranian official told this writer in Vienna. But Iran held fast, and Obama needed to get an agreement. Kerry ultimately gave up his demand.
Blinken, Sullivan and the other Biden administration officials who worked on Iran during the Obama administration seem to have forgotten how Iran used 20 percent enrichment to get the United States to drop its sanctions. In any case, they are so enamored with the Trump sanctions and their role in stifling Iranian oil sales that they believe they will have the upper hand this time around.
In its bid to coerce a state that is fighting for its most basic national rights into submission, the Biden administration has exhibited a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the limits of U.S. power. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has already prompted Iran to establish military capabilities that it previously lacked.
If the Biden administration refuses to relent on its coercive diplomacy and provokes a crisis, Iran can now inflict serious costs on the United States and its allies in the region. Yet Biden’s foreign policy team appears so far to be oblivious to the serious risks inherent in its current path.