With the possibility of renegotiations with Iran in the coming weeks, President Biden on Saturday opened the door to lift sanctions as part of diplomatic efforts to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.
The offer was made as part of a joint statement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron. The four leaders met on the sidelines of the G-20 conference in Rome to plan their strategy for dealing with Iran, which raised an alarm by increasing the enrichment of nuclear material.
It will probably be difficult to break the diplomatic stalemate that has persisted on the issue for months, and Biden has indicated he is not ready to move forward without Tehran commitments.
“This will only be possible if Iran changes direction,” they said in a statement, adding that they called on the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, “to seize this opportunity and return to good faith efforts to conclude our negotiations immediately. This is the only reliable way to avoid a dangerous aggravation that is not in the interest of any country.
Biden advocated a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, which it was achieved by President Obama in 2015 and President Trump left three years later. They have had the US since then targeted the Iranian economy with criminal sanctions; Tehran, however, has stepped up its nuclear activities.
“We are convinced that an agreement on a return to full compliance can be reached and implemented quickly and that the Iranian nuclear program can be ensured in the long term exclusively for peaceful purposes,” the statement said.
Regional experts said there was no clear path back to the original agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan or JCPOA.
Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East and international studies at Johns Hopkins University, does not believe the Biden administration has much hope for negotiations and may no longer see the existing framework as feasible.
The challenge, Nasr said, is to maintain unity with European allies who are more interested in reviving the JCPOA. He said Saturday’s meeting showed Biden “very much wants Europeans to stay very close to the United States.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, described the U.S. and Europe as closely linked, and told reporters Thursday that “everyone will sing from the same song on the issue”.
Russia and China, the other two participants in Iran’s nuclear deal, did not participate in either a joint statement or Saturday’s meeting.
Simply returning to the negotiating table, let alone concluding a new agreement, was a challenge. Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, accused Tehran of procrastinating for months. He said Monday that “it’s hard to find an explanation, an innocent explanation for why they take so long.”
The break came on Wednesday when Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani said Iranian leaders had agreed to start negotiations before the end of November.
The date for the resumption of talks has not been set, and the White House doubts that they will take place.
“We’ve heard positive signals that they are, but I think we need to wait and see when and if they will actually show up at the negotiating table,” Sullivan said.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Biden should continue with Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, where the U.S. tightens penalties until Tehran relinquishes it.
However, he said the Biden administration is likely to seek an informal understanding where talks continue and neither side will escalate the situation. In such a gray area, U.S. sanctions are not lifted, but are selectively enforced, and Iran is in no hurry to build nuclear weapons.
“There will never be an agreement, but there will be informal agreements along the way,” Doran said. “It’s convenient for Iranians and suitable for Americans.”
The unrest in the Middle East has also jeopardized diplomatic efforts. Finally, Iran was blamed for a drone attack on a military base in Syria, where U.S. troops are based. No American casualties were reported.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, said the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles, drones and proxy forces would make it difficult to address the nuclear program in isolation.
“In the real world, escalation is happening,” he said.
Katulis added: “This is not an environment of trust and confidence.”