Biden Is Close to Scrapping the JCPOA Deal With Iran. Can Europe Stop Him? by Martin Jay

The Europeans seem to think that the Ukraine war is the perfect setting for him to go back to the Iranians with a deal which satisfies their earlier demands. 

The Europeans seem to think that the Ukraine war is the perfect setting for him to go back to the Iranians with a deal which satisfies their earlier demands.

Is Joe Biden’s pusillanimous handling of the Ukraine war pushing his administration farther away from getting a no-nukes deal with Iran? Or is it his stubbornness to not concede one relatively minor concession the heart of the matter – which is going to mark his term in office by its foreign policy calamities around the world? European leaders are beginning to think that the Ukraine conflict could be the right time to offer Biden a foreign policy prize, as getting Iran to sign a re-worked nuclear deal which limits its production of uranium is still on the table, despite the chorus of cynics who claim that the so-called Iran Deal is dead in the water.

In late April an impressive list of former foreign ministers and ex ambassadors from EU countries and others like Turkey – totalling 14 in all – signed an open letter urging Biden to not obsess over one particular sticking point, believing that the timing of getting a deal now with Iran is possible, given the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

“At a time when transatlantic cooperation has become all the more critical to respond against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, for U.S. and European leaders to let slip the opportunity to defuse a nuclear crisis in the Middle East would be a grave mistake”, it  reads.

Indirect negotiations between Washington and Iran to return to the JCPOA, which basically limited Tehran’s nuclear program in return for sanction relief, began in early 2021.

According to reports at the time, both sides had struck an agreement over a draft which outlined a framework whereby the U.S. would lift nuclear-related sanctions placed by the Trump administration. In return, Iran would respect the terms of the original JCPOA’s restrictions on uranium enrichment and stockpiling.

It seemed pretty straightforward. But then the Iranians played a card which has strained relations between both sides, fuelling prejudices from Washington that Tehran is not serious about getting a deal. The Iranians wanted a cherry on the top. They asked for their prestigious IRGC – an elitist military unit – to be removed from Washington’s “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” list, which Biden had always categorised as not related to the nuclear talks and so the talks stalled. Later, the Biden administration countered with more demands, in the event of agreeing to the delisting of the IRGC, such as pledges that Tehran would never attack U.S. forces, but this was rejected by Tehran.

The Europeans, for their part, seem to be hinting in the letter that now with Ukraine draining America’s resources and with Russia being the central focus of its proxy military objectives, an Iran deal could now be pulled off. In the letter, they take a swipe at Trump’s policies of “maximum pressure” which has merely produced a regime in Tehran which is going flat out to enrich uranium like never before. Ironically this is creating a scenario where, some might argue, a JCPOA is needed even more than before, which they call a “success” when referring to it the first time round when it was functioning before Trump  pulled the U.S. out of it in 2018.

The letter signed by an impressive list of dignitaries seems to suggest that there is a real opportunity to come back to the negotiating table, given that the threat of America’s military response is dampened by Biden’s Ukraine strategy.

Other more recalcitrant voices believe that the 2015 deal is no longer relevant nor a point of reference and that the world has changed. Some in Israel, for example, argue that Russia, China, Iran and North Korea now all pose a combined nuclear threat which has intensified since the Ukraine war started,  making the case for either new demands from the U.S. side or air strikes against Iran as the current deal on offer allows a legal loophole for Russia to build nuclear plants in Iran anyway. This somewhat extreme narrative is a knee-jerk reaction to a widely held view in Jerusalem that Biden is about to bin the deal anyway but if the impasse is really only about the status of Iran’s elite guard, he might seek solace in buying more time to reflect on what the outcome might be. The world has certainly changed since 2015.

The geopolitical alliance between Russia, China, Iran, India and others in the region is growing every day. Sanctions, which had an impact on Iran earlier on, are having less impact, not only on Iran but even on Russia as Biden has made no inroads at all in convincing Europeans to completely break free of their dependence on Russian gas and oil. In a week where Biden asked Congress for an unprecedented amount of money to finance a war in Ukraine, news that the Russian ruble hit an all time high against the dollar filled the business pages. Sanctions against Russia can only work if they are absolute in the form of reducing Europe’s consumption of its oil and gas, rather than “half-cock” as they presently are.

In fact, sanctions are having less and less impact on America’s enemies and the case that Washington should employ more diplomatic verve with Iran is a strong one. But does the stuttering Biden have the diplomatic élan to really get a new Iran deal? He might consider it a great point to score against Trump, who only pulled the U.S. out of the deal out of spite towards Obama. But looking beyond the petulance and score settling, he might well consider reducing Iran’s nuclear capabilities could be a foreign policy triumph he can ill afford to miss.

Source: Strategic Culture