Iran pushes back at US overreach on nuclear issue

Iran rejects talks with US unless sanctions are lifted

Tehran rejected on Sunday a pending proposal from the European Union to arrange a “diplomatic conversation” with the US. But the Iranian statement in this regard is rather nuanced. Speaking to reporters in Tehran on Sunday, foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated: 

“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.” 

Khatibzadeh added, “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 behaviour.”

Plainly put, this may well become another goof-up by the Joe Biden Administration in its Gulf policy on top of the screw-up of the seven decade old US-Saudi alliance. Biden administration should have known that Tehran would never talk directly with the US as long as Washington maintained its current level of sanctions. President Trump bullied Iran for three years and failed. 

Curiously, instead of offering any sanctions relief, Biden mounted the high horse, insisting that Iran should first return to the JCPOA and not the US — although Trump’s pullout in 2018 only had precipitated the entire sequence of developments resulting in the current impasse. Biden shouldn’t have started such a petty squabble, considering the high stakes involved. 

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken rallied the E3 signatories to the JCPOA (UK, France and Germany) to harmonise with the US stance on the Iran issue and a joint statement was issued which made a litany of demands on Iran. Blinken apparently assumes that Tehran is desperate to talk anyway. 

The White House simultaneously began consulting Israel, despite the fact that the latter’s stance that Biden ought to pick up the threads of his predecessor’s maximum pressure strategy and simply double down. According to reports, US and Israel will cooperate within a mechanism at the level of the two National Security Advisors to exchange views, coordinate and navigate the Iran issue. 

Furthermore, Biden embarked on a bizarre air strike in Syria last Thursday night and went on to brag that he was giving a warning to Iran. As he put it, “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.” A flexing of muscle at this delicate moment was avoidable. Ironically, Biden’s own party has denounced Trump’s similar air strikes in the past without Congress’s authorisation.

Above all, Blinken persuaded the E3 to move the Board of Governors of the IAEA to censure Iran for its decision to suspend the Additional Protocol of the JCPOA (which was in the first instance a voluntary provision.) 

The US diplomats have circulated a document on Thursday which listed Washington’s grievances and ordered Iran to fully cooperate with inspectors. The proposed censure suggests the US is ratcheting up the pressure. The E3 resolution would “underscore strong concern at the IAEA’s findings” and “express the board’s deepening concern with respect to Iran’s cooperation.”

Indeed, it is likely that Israel is once again pulling strings from behind the scene and feeding the White House NSA Jake Sullivan with doctored intelligence. Equally, Biden could be deliberately dragging his feet and grandstanding with a view to score political points with Republicans, Saudis, or Israelis. 

At any rate, the momentum is getting lost with each passing day. Trust the Israel-Saudi-UAE axis to now step up efforts to thwart any US-Iran talks. Riyadh is seething with fury after the humiliation suffered over the CIA report on Jamal Khashoggi. Biden also needs to be mindful of the mood in the Congress where he has important business to transact in the coming days and weeks — Covid-19 relief package to begin with. 

On top of all this, the US has ratcheted up tensions also with Russia whose help is vital to moderate Iran’s stance. (here, here, here and here) Evidently, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand wants. 

A flashpoint is arising. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organisations in Vienna, said in a tweet on Sunday, “IAEA BoG session will start tomorrow [March 1]. It can predetermine further developments around the Iranian nuclear program, as well as prospects of full restoration of JCPOA. All Governors need to keep this in mind and exercise responsible approach.”

Iran sent a letter to the IAEA warning it may stop its cooperation with the UN watchdog altogether if it adopts the resolution in Vienna. Belatedly, Biden team seems to get the point that it overreached and has precipitated a grave situation.

A White House spokeswoman told Reuters Sunday no sooner than word came from Tehran on its rejection of talks, “While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments.”

These are conciliatory words, but it is difficult to see how the US and E3 could walk back from their threatened IAEA censure without a serious loss of face. It is going to be even harder now for Biden to do what should have been the natural thing to do, namely, remove some of the sanctions against Iran.