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As the Biden administration launched indirect talks in Vienna on Tuesday with the hopes of reviving the disastrous Obama-era Iranian nuclear deal, a spokesman for the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism preemptively declared victory.
“We find this position realistic and promising,” regime flack Ali Rabiei said of the expectation that President Biden would agree to lift crippling sanctions. “It could be the start of correcting the bad process that had taken diplomacy to a dead end.”
The “bad process” refers to the maximum-pressure campaign during which the Trump administration actually took seriously Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its destabilizing influence in the region. Trump imposed punishing sanctions on Iran and took out the chief architect of its terrorism strategy, Qasem Soleimani. And he rightly withdrew from the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or “JCPOA”), in 2018.
While no immediate breakthrough is expected this week, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, who led the Iranian delegation, called Tuesday’s discussions constructive and announced that “expert level” talks will continue on Friday.
It’s no surprise that the regime is so giddy. The mere existence of these discussions has demonstrated the Biden administration’s interest in diplomatic theater to obscure its movement toward Tehran’s negotiating position.
On February 7, Biden was asked during an interview with CBS if he would lift sanctions to get Iran back to the table. He responded simply: “No.” He also indicated that Iran would have to stop enriching uranium first.
But the cracks had started to show in the lead-up to Vienna. Last Friday, the U.S. special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, told PBS NewsHour, “the United States knows that, in order to get back into compliance, it’s going to have to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal that was reached with Iran and the other countries involved in the nuclear deal.”
On Monday, ahead of the talks, State Department spokesperson Ned Price dodged a question on sanctions relief. “I will leave it to the negotiators to detail positions,” he said, effectively leaving the possibility open.
The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior administration official that same day, explaining that the Iranians have asked for “an initial gesture that would pave the way to those talks,” such as sanctions relief. He added, “It was their idea, and we went along.”
To be clear, there’s no guarantee that the U.S. ends up offering sanctions relief as a direct result of the Vienna talks, though that’s where things seem to be going. Either way, the talks indicate that the Biden administration would like to shift the debate from whether it should reenter a bad deal to how it can do so as an intermediate step toward a “follow-on agreement” that addresses other aspects of Iran’s behavior.
The deal that the Obama team negotiated was fundamentally flawed if the goal was to restrain Iran. It enabled hundreds of billions of dollars to flow to Iran up front, while allowing the regime to continue work on ballistic missiles and to maintain a “civilian” nuclear program. In a frenzy to get Iran to agree to restrictions on uranium enrichment, negotiators did not address Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism. And yet, a sunset clause allowed restrictions on enriching uranium to start to phase out over ten to 15 years.
Even if Iran were to have followed the agreement to the letter, it would still have been allowed to become a more potent conventional threat and carry out terrorism while maintaining the long-term option of becoming a nuclear power. Of course, it has repeatedly violated the deal anyway, maintaining a nuclear archive the whole time. More recently, in February, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran had produced uranium metal at one of its nuclear plants.
Even modest steps to lift the Trump-era sanctions will all but sabotage any hopes of getting Iran to make any sort of concessions on the myriad of issues that the Obama deal failed to address. Any form of sanctions relief will be a lifeline to the regime, which had been hamstrung by the maximum-pressure campaign.
In the weeks leading up to Vienna, top Biden officials have clearly signaled that such concessions are in the offing. Additionally, they are repeating one of the core mistakes made by Obama’s national-security team. That is, out of a desperation to sign a deal that they could claim dealt with the nuclear issue, the Obama administration looked the other way when it came to Iran’s malign behavior around the world and jumped at every chance to grease the wheels of negotiations.
Similarly, under Biden, U.S. officials reportedly held discussions with South Korea about unfreezing Iranian assets tied up by oil sanctions there. They’ve declined to oppose a potential $5 billion IMF loan to the country, and have apparently turned a blind eye to Iranian oil sales to Chinese firms that would violate sanctions.
All the while, the administration has telegraphed that it will do very little to apply pressure to Iranian proxies, and that it’s even reducing the U.S. military footprint in the Gulf region. Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden team has failed to link Iran’s regional activity with its nuclear problem. It has already removed the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and the sanctions on the chopping block are reportedly terrorism-related.
From the start, the administration has promised to seek a “longer and stronger” deal to address these matters after both sides return to full compliance with the JCPOA. The trouble is that once the U.S. implements sanctions relief, Tehran will have no incentive to negotiate an additional agreement. The Biden administration will have squandered hard-won leverage with nothing to show for it.
The only way this strategy makes sense is if it is by design. It’s no secret that Obama officials envisioned a realignment in the Middle East away from traditional alliances with Israel and Arab Gulf states toward a region in which Iran is more influential. And there is reason to believe that the Biden administration, which includes many of the same officials, shares a similar mentality. Concessions that make Iran more economically powerful are consistent with this vision.
Either way, it is clear that when Washington and Tehran eventually sit down for direct talks, the latter will have the upper hand, undermining U.S. regional allies and making it easier for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambitions and threaten the world.