Will Biden’s Iran Diplomacy Become a Shakespearean Tragedy?
Last Thursday, Iran’s U.N. mission, which is on the thirty-fourth floor of a high-rise in midtown Manhattan, received what is known as a “diplomatic note” from the U.S. mission, seven blocks away. The Biden Administration, the e-mail said, was lifting restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration that had confined the movement of Iranian diplomats and their families to the mission, the United Nations, their homes, or John F. Kennedy Airport. Now, like diplomats from North Korea and Syria, Iran’s small staff of envoys can move anywhere within a twenty-five-mile radius around Columbus Circle. In another diplomatic note, the U.S. mission also informed the United Nations that it was rescinding President Trump’s invocation last year of “snapback” sanctions on Iran, which was designed (but ultimately failed) to reinstate U.N. sanctions. Shortly thereafter, the State Department announced that the United States would accept an invitation—if organized by the European Union—to meet Iran and the five other world powers who produced the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015, to discuss how to prevent it from collapsing altogether.
In his first major speech to allies, the following day, President Biden repeated his post-election mantra that “America is back” and ready to reclaim its pre-Trump leadership role. “We are not looking backward. We are looking forward, together,” he told the annual Munich Security Conference. On Iran, he added, “We’re prepared to reëngage in negotiations with the P5-plus-1 on Iran’s nuclear program,” a reference to Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany, the other parties to the accord.
But reviving the nuclear deal, the most significant pact in more than a quarter century to limit the spread of the world’s deadliest weapon, is already proving complicated for the Biden team. Reversing other Trump policies—by signing up again to the Paris climate accord, rejoining the World Health Organization, or extending the New Start arms-control treaty with Russia—was the easy stuff. Starting with Iran, the Biden team now has to engage in tough, imaginative, and potentially painful diplomacy to restore any sense that America can tangibly solve global threats. In principle, the United States is again committed to inclusive international diplomacy. Yet, in practice, Trump so rattled the global order and unravelled its institutions that the damage endures after he is gone.
The case of Iran is most illustrative. Trump set in motion a cascading set of events to destroy the Iran accord—not unlike the centrifuges that spin enriched uranium to fuel a bomb. He withdrew the United States from the accord, in 2018, and began imposing sanctions on more than a thousand of the Islamic Republic’s most prominent leaders, banks, businesses, foundations, and individuals, as well as the military, in order to create leverage over Tehran. Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was personally sanctioned and barred from entering the United States to attend U.N. meetings. Iran opted to stay in the accord, as did the five other major powers. But, in 2019, after fourteen months of waiting, and amid more and more punitive U.S. sanctions, Iran began gradual breaches of the deal, to create leverage over Washington.
Iran now has twelve times the amount of enriched uranium permitted by the accord. It has installed advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium faster. It’s enriching uranium to a higher purity—up from the 3.67 per cent allowed under the deal to twenty per cent (which is still lower than the ninety-per-cent enrichment needed for weapons-grade fuel). And now a new law passed by parliament—after the father of Iran’s nuclear program was assassinated, in November, allegedly by Israel—requires the government to suspend implementation of the so-called Additional Protocol, including snap inspections of undeclared sites suspected of hosting nuclear activity. Iran’s agreement to enforce the Additional Protocol—and allow surprise inspections—had been a key part of the nuclear accord.
The scope of the U.S. diplomatic damage and Iran’s scientific advances during the Trump era is now sinking in. De-escalation looks daunting, even though Washington and Tehran share the goal of resuscitating the first major diplomatic deal between them since the 1979 revolution and the seizure of fifty-two American hostages.
The Biden team’s three modest overtures last week were intended to break the impasse over which country would move first. “That’s not in and of itself a breakthrough,” a senior State Department official conceded to reporters, on Thursday. “This is going to be a painstaking and difficult process that’s going to take some time for it to see whether both sides agree on what they will define as ‘compliance or compliance.’ ” In the meantime, none of the steps meaningfully altered the status quo from the Trump era. All the U.S. sanctions are still in place. Every day, Iran is closer to the “breakout time” to produce and then assemble elements for a bomb. And now the International Atomic Energy Agency has fewer means to monitor Iran’s facilities.
Over the weekend, Iranian officials—in public and in interviews—said that Biden’s approach on Iran is no different from Trump’s. “Biden claims that Trump’s maximum-pressure policy was maximum failure,” Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, said on Iranian television, on Sunday. “But they have not changed that policy. The United States is addicted to pressure, sanctions and bullying. It does not work with Iran.”
Nasser Hadian, a U.S.-educated political scientist at Tehran University who is close to Iranian officials, told me that the Biden overture was “entirely irrelevant to what we expected to be offered.” In an op-ed during the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged to offer Tehran “a credible path back to diplomacy.” The perception in Tehran now, Hadian said, is that “this is a delaying tactic, and the U.S. is not serious.”
Iran is less than enthusiastic because, as part of the deal, it surrendered much of the country’s uranium stockpile and two-thirds of its centrifuges, destroyed equipment, converted facilities, and agreed to limit its future nuclear activities—all in exchange for the lifting of U.S. and U.N. sanctions. A year later, Trump was ensconced in the White House and intent on undoing President Obama’s diplomacy so that he could broker his own, bigger deal. Iran’s benefits proved fleeting. Trump’s reimposition of sanctions—on Iran as well as on foreign companies that did business with the Islamic Republic—intimidated most parties from even trying. Tehran claims that it has lost access to two hundred and fifty billion dollars in revenue since 2018.
Some Trump advisers had advocated for a more ambitious policy of regime change—or upending the Islamic Republic, which this month celebrated the forty-second anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Zarif made note of that on Sunday. “Trump left the agreement hoping that Iran’s government would crumble. Now he’s gone, and we’re still here,” Zarif said, on Iran’s English-language Press TV. “I think that’s a good lesson. Seven consecutive U.S. Presidents are gone. Every one of them wanted to get us out. All of them are out. We’re still here.”
As the Biden Administration tries to revive the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.), Iranian officials insist that they will not be duped again. “There’s a feeling of betrayal in Tehran,” Hadian told me. “We gave up all our capabilities in the J.C.P.O.A. and got nothing in return.” He compared the new U.S. overtures to giving candies to little kids.
Iranian officials are insisting that Washington move first this time—and lift sanctions—because the U.S. unilaterally abandoned the deal. “Once everybody implements their side of obligations, there will be talks,” Zarif said. He also argued that Iran’s breaches over the past twenty months were legal under Paragraph 36 of the J.C.P.O.A., which allows a “complaining participant” to treat an unresolved issue as grounds to “cease performing its commitments,” in whole or in part.
Tehran is also leveraging the new law that revokes the sweeping inspection powers granted to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog. After intensive talks in Tehran over the weekend, the I.A.E.A. director general, Rafael Grossi, announced that, as of this Tuesday, snap inspections would end and inspectors would have less access to Iran’s nuclear program. An Iranian Foreign Ministry official estimated that there would be twenty to thirty per cent less oversight. But the two sides did negotiate a temporary, three-month fix that “salvages the situation for now,” Grossi said. The I.A.E.A. provided no details, but an Iranian official confirmed that Iran will keep the information recorded by camera monitors at nuclear sites during this three-month period. If U.S. sanctions are lifted, Iran will then turn over the information to the I.A.E.A. If sanctions are not lifted, Iran will erase the tapes. This further narrows the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.
The deal quickly became a political football in Tehran, with hard-liners in parliament on Monday demanding that the judiciary rule on whether the compromise with the I.A.E.A. was legal. The vote was overwhelming. Iran’s parliament, which is now dominated by conservatives and hard-liners, called for President Hassan Rouhani and others to be held to account for agreeing to the terms. “The government has no right to decide and act arbitrarily. This arrangement is an insult to the parliament,” the hard-line chairman of the national-security committee, Mojtaba Zolnour, said, on Monday. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went one step further, and said that Iran could now enrich uranium to sixty per cent—a major increase from the current level of twenty per cent. He also vowed on Monday that Tehran would “not back down on the nuclear issue.”
Time is not on the Biden Administration’s side. Iran begins its long New Year’s holiday in one month, and then moves into the campaign season for its Presidential election, due in June. Rouhani, who initiated Iran’s diplomacy with the United States and cut back official taunts at a country long dubbed the “Great Satan,” is stepping down. “It would be ludicrous not to restore the J.C.P.O.A. while Rouhani is still in power,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group and a former U.N. political-affairs officer, told me. “The Administration will be taking a huge gamble in terms of who comes into office and who he empowers as members of his team. People matter in diplomacy.”
The Biden Administration has its own frustrations “We have a thousand thoughts about how to move forward, but until Iran agrees to talk it’s like playing chess with ourselves,” a U.S. official told me. And even if Iran accepts a European invitation, the gap in how to get to their common goal increasingly looks more like an abyss. “Maybe we can figure it out, maybe we can’t,” the official added.