The US wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US has already signaled that the US will also be resuming a central role in the international community by a renewed emphasis on diplomacy, particularly with respect to Iran. The E-3 have been active in attempting to facilitate the creation of conditions for such a renewal. Some observers expect this shift to lead to new tensions between the US and Israel, especially given the strong critique of the JCPOA offered by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on 26 January 2021. There have been prophecies that, “Israel must choose between a return to a head-on confrontation with the US administration, with consequences likely to be more severe than those that resulted from the disagreement between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, and an attempt to include as many as possible number of Israeli demands in the negotiations to be conducted with Iran.” I think this choice is misguided and the prophecy is mistaken.
The events of this week add to the evidence that the path of negotiations with Iran will not be readily at hand, at the very least until the Iranian May election. A reinvigorated and regenerated Iran nuclear deal is impossible in the first six months of 2021 and likely impossible anytime in 2021. There are too many issues and integrating them is too complicated to allow for an easy resolution. That does not mean that there cannot be progress towards a deal.
The issue on how to restart negotiations and who takes the first step is moot since neither has to take an initiative or will before the other acts. Breakthroughs will be dialogical, not written edicts and scripts. Further, containment must be directed both at Iran’s nuclear as well as its expansionary conventional program. The two can no longer be regarded sequentially. Further, any agreement will involve more than Iran with the P5+1, but must include the relevant regional actors, either at the table or more likely behind the scenes in cooperation with Europe and the US.
After all, this week Iran rejected the EU offer to mediate a restart of talks with America. Nevertheless, U.S. officials, though disappointed, evidently remain upbeat in spite of this rejection. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, tweeted, “Considering US/E3 positions & actions, time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting.” Further, he insisted on batting down an EU invitation and added that sanctions relief would be essential for any return to negotiations.
Nevertheless, Americans remain optimistic since the time frame for rejection was signaled as temporary. More specifically, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the present juncture is not a suitable time for holding an unofficial meeting with the European Union and American officials on the landmark nuclear deal that Iran clinched with world powers in 2015, “In view of the recent stances and measures taken by the United States and the three European countries [who are signatories to the JCPOA], the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that this is not a good time for holding an unofficial meeting on the accord as proposed by the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.”
The Wall Street Journal had already quoted two senior Western diplomats saying that Iran had rejected the EU offer to arrange direct nuclear talks with the US because Iran wanted a guarantee that the US would lift some sanctions immediately after the meeting. Khatibzadeh said that, “Implementation of commitments by all parties [to the JCPOA] is not a matter of negotiation and give-and-take, because all options for give-and-take were exhausted five years ago. The way forward is quite clear. The US must end its illegal and unilateral sanctions and return to its JCPOA commitments. This issue neither needs negotiation, nor a resolution by the Board of Governors [of the International Atomic Energy Agency]. The Islamic Republic of Iran will respond to actions with action and just in the same way that it will return to its JCPOA commitments as sanctions are removed, it will also answer in kind to all hostile measures and behaviors.”
If “maximum resistance” was Tehran’s response to Trump’s “maximum pressure,” “measured resistance’ is its current revised response to Biden’s measured probes. Iran has also implicated the Europeans for their failures, insisting that the E-3 have been wimps and not stood up to US bullying, paying only lip service to Tehran’s calls to safeguard Iran’s rights and interests against the United States’ under the agreement.
However, Iran has not been satisfied with practicing rhetorical tit-for-tat. It has speeded up production of a new generation of IR2M, IR6 centrifuges to be installed at the Fordow and Natanz facilities according to the briefing on Sunday to the Iranian parliament by the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Selahi on the installation of the centrifuges. Abolfazl Amoui, the spokesman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian parliament, quoted Salehi as planning to install the waterfalls while the centrifuges are gasified while repeating the perquisite of US removal of sanctions as a precondition as required by Iran’s Strategic Action Law. Article 6 of the law requires suspension of voluntary compliance with the Additional Protocol.
The problem concerns not only more and much faster centrifuges. Iran has already produced 25 kg of 20% uranium and is within sight of producing 120 kg. At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors this week will consider a U.S.-led resolution to condemn Iran’s recent decision to block certain nuclear inspections.
In the meanwhile, the Biden administration has made no moves to reverse Trump’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization as well as conscripts recruited for it as part of their compulsory service. No one in any way associated with the Revolutionary Guard is eligible to travel to or reside in the US. Biden has not acted to retract or revise the terrorist IRGC designation.
At the same time, the Iranians have been more active than ever and have become more provocative. They attacked an American base in Iraq killing at least one American contractor. Netanyahu also accused Iran of being behind the explosion on an Israeli-owned bulk carrier in the Gulf of Oman last week. The Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray Bahamian-flagged cargo ship was hit on 25 February above the water line forcing it to dock at Dubai’s Port Rashid for repairs. The Israeli ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Gilad Erdan, levelled the same charge. “It was no secret that the Iranians are trying to harm Israeli targets.” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi pointed to Iran as one of the greatest threats in the region. Iran is not “only is a nuclear threat, but it spreads and carries out terror and operations against civilian targets.”.
However, though Israel indicated that it would respond in an appropriate manner on its own time frame, there was no sabre rattling. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that though the evidence pointed to Iran since the ship was located relatively close to the Iranian coast. But Gantz was unwilling to unequivocally blame Iran, noting that an investigation into the incident had not yet been completed. “We need to continue investigating. The Iranians are looking to harm Israelis and Israeli infrastructure. The proximity to Iran leads to the assessment that there is a likelihood that this is an Iranian initiative. We are committed to continuing to check,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denied that Iran was behind an attack.
Further, yesterday Israel accused Iran of being deliberately responsible for the worst environmental disaster to hit Israel, the oil spill on Israeli Mediterranean beaches. A Libyan-owned tanker registered in the Marshall Islands as of December, The Emerald, was suspected of smuggling oil from Iran to Syria in breach of international sanctions. It was identified as responsible for deliberately dumping tons of crude oil into the eastern Mediterranean 70 km. off the Israeli coast early last month. 90% of Israel’s 195 kilometer (120-mile) Mediterranean coastline was covered in more than 1,000 tons of black tar, closing the beaches to recreation and the sea to fishing.
“Now that President Biden has launched an attack directed toward Iran in a sovereign country without permission, I wonder if @SpeakerPelosi will be consistent and offer a similar resolution to assert the Constitutional authority of Congress to decide when we go to war?” Some Democrats, such as Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York and Rep. Ro Khanna of California took an even more critical stance. The latter tweeted, “We ran on ending wars, not escalating conflicts in the Middle East.” Biden was bombing Syria in his first fifty days in office. Donald Trump famously only attacked once in 2017 to punish the Syrians themselves for a chemical attack on civilians.
These messages in only one week are clear. Reconstructing a nuclear deal will neither be quick nor easy. Secondly, the deal cannot simply be a resurrected JCPOA. Third, at the same time, the US will not abjure from the use of US forces to attack Iranian expeditionary forces that threaten the U.S. position in the Middle East. Biden is no wilting flower. Both Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have characterized Iran’s foreign policy as “destabilizing” requiring a continuation of non-nuclear sanctions. For the US, it does not matter that Iran spends less on its military than either Israel or Saudi Arabia or even Turkey. It is the way it spends that money and for what purpose. Iran under the current regime is considered a subversive and destabilizing presence in the Middle East.
There is a radically different perspective adopted by a writer like Peter Beinart, editor of Jewish Currents, who has been a leader in Jewish support for a one-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. “To help negotiate peace in ravaged nations like Syria and Yemen, the Biden administration must negotiate with Iran. It must treat the country not as a pariah but as one of the several ruthless, interventionist regimes whose interests must be accommodated if the proxy wars that have devastated the Middle East are to end. It must stop pretending that America’s friends are any less aggressive than its foes.”
This is an argument for equivalence. However, the role of Iran as an existential threat to Israel is entirely ignored in his analysis and Iran is transformed into a typical state in the region, but one with less money. Iran has purportedly supplied Hezbollah with 150,000 missiles and Gaza’s Hamas with 50,000. But Iran also runs a vast media and cyber network throughout the Middle East. In 2007, Iran established IRTVU with 210 affiliates in 35 countries specifically to broadcast anti-American (the Great Satan) and anti-Israel (the Great Satan’s sidekick) propaganda, insisting that Israel must be eliminated as a state in the region. Iran is the unequivocal leader of the “axis of resistance.” Iran is and must be labeled as a pariah.
If the growing regional and geopolitical stakes were not sufficiently acute, Iran’s and Syria’s oppression of their respective populations would normally be sufficient for ostracism. Their international illegitimacy and criminality provide an impetus for America being wary of restarting the nuclear deal, certainly on the old terms.
There is another front of contention which I will explore in greater depth on Monday, the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open investigations into both Israeli and Palestinian criminal conduct in terms of international criminal law. Yet:the Iranian regime, but especially Bashar al-Assad’s regime, have been unequivocally criminal regimes for a long time. Stephen Rapp, Obama’s former ambassador-at-large for war crimes, in a recent 60 Minutes segment claimed that, “We’ve got better evidence against Assad and his clique than we had against Milosevic in Yugoslavia…Even better than we had against the Nazis at Nuremberg.” But it is Israel and the Palestinians that the ICC is investigating.
The Assad’s regime’s criminality has continued and expanded under the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran has been complicit. Aside from Syria’s deliberate targeting of hospitals, the widescale murder of healthcare workers (cf. Physicians for Human Rights), Assad, by not opening Syrian portals at the borders to UN humanitarian agencies, has prevented the UN from delivering badly needed humanitarian aid, including anti-COVID vaccines. Contrary to the 2 March claim by Assad that Syria has had only 15,696 COVID cases and 1,039 deaths. according to Syria Direct, only 1.5 percent of deaths are reported. Of the vaccines being imported, the small amount will be reserved for the regime hierarchy and its supporters. In the meanwhile, an environmental disaster has become chronic as Syria is being stripped of its forests and wildfires are multiplying.
The Biden administration is very conscious of mistakes made in the past. As President Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, acknowledged “we failed on Syria and Iran. “It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days. It’s something that I feel very strongly.” Syria policy cannot be subsumed under and made secondary to Iran nuclear negotiations. Washington is pursuing a more active and adroit policy towards Iran and the “axis of resistance” more generally. In the meanwhile, Netanyahu reiterated that, it will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons under any circumstances. “The Iranians will not have nuclear weapons, with or without an agreement. I said that to my friend [US President Joe] Biden as well.” Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE agree.
Do not expect a reconstructed nuclear deal anytime soon.