By Arab News
By Luke Coffey*
This week US authorities charged four Iranian spies with plotting to kidnap an American journalist from New York City, smuggle her to Venezuela using a speedboat, and then fly her to Tehran. All of this because she criticized the regime for its abuses of human rights.
Earlier in the month, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria targeted US troops and diplomats using drones and rockets. Two American soldiers were wounded in the attacks.
Iran is escalating tensions, probably to test the Biden administration on its commitment to continuing the indirect talks with Tehran in Vienna about Iran’s nuclear program. It is time for President Joe Biden to pull the plug on those talks.
To be clear, in principle the US holding talks with Iran over its nuclear program is not, in itself, a bad thing. But the conditions and circumstances first must be right. Washington must enter talks with Tehran from a position of strength. It cannot look desperate as it does so.
Despite the criticism he received at the time, former President Donald Trump was correct in 2018 to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. It was a bad deal when it was signed in 2015 and remains a bad deal now. The Trump administration’s campaign of maximum pressure was slowly nudging Tehran closer to the negotiating table on terms that would most benefit the US.
However, Biden’s insistence on the campaign trail that the decision to leave the JCPOA was terrible for US interests, and his commitment to rejoining the flawed agreement, has weakened Washington’s negotiating position. His determination to return to the deal, at almost any cost, has made the US look desperate. In the eyes of Iran’s supreme leader, desperation is weakness. This is the reason why the Iranian regime would even consider such an audacious kidnapping plot on US soil as the one revealed this week.
Even with Biden’s desire to rejoin the JCPOA, however, it appears that the domestic political situations across Europe and in Iran will prevent a renewed agreement in the near future.
In Europe, three countries matter most when it comes to the JCPOA talks: The UK, Germany and France — and it is unlikely that any of them will get more involved in the talks any time soon.
Of the three, the UK is probably the most open-minded about scrapping the 2015 nuclear deal and trying to negotiate a new agreement with Iran. Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously has suggested he supports a completely new deal but this view has not translated into a new UK policy on the JCPOA.
The domestic political churning in Germany and France means that no major decisions on the Iran talks will be made in the near term. Parliamentary elections in Germany in September are expected to be hotly contested. In April, there will be a presidential election in France. It is unlikely that authorities in either country will be willing to make any drastic changes to their respective approaches to Iran or the JCPOA before these elections take place.
Another problem affecting Biden’s prospects of a breakthrough in the talks is the domestic situation in Iran after the recent presidential elections. The newly elected — or more accurately “selected” — president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a well-known hard-liner. In fact, he holds the dubious distinction of being the first Iranian president to enter office while already under US sanctions (for his involvement in the mass executions of political opponents three decades ago).
Sources in Iran claim that the talks in Vienna will not resume until after Raisi formally takes over the reins of government, some time next month. This is a delaying tactic, and it is possible he does not want to restart the talks at all.
Raisi will not be as willing to talk to the US as his predecessor was. The Europeans will not get involved in any meaningful way until major elections in key countries have taken place. Meanwhile, Iran will continue to ratchet up the pressure in the Middle East.
It is time, therefore, that Biden started dealing with the Iran that he is faced with and not the Iran that he wants. Even though his administration has taken the wrong approach so far, there is still time to correct course.
Biden must first finally acknowledge that the original 2015 deal is dead. Reviving the JCPOA would let Tehran off the sanctions hook and undermine the prospects for pressuring the regime to curb its malign activities across the region.
Any new agreement should remove the sunset clauses regarding restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, include a stronger verification mechanism, and include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.
In the meantime, the US must maintain the sanctions on Iran. There should be no lifting them merely in return for the promise of talks.
It is realistic to assume that Tehran would want economic incentives to restart talks. If this is to happen, those economic incentives should be in the form of limited disbursement of frozen Iranian assets and not the suspension of economic sanctions.
The Biden administration also needs to do a better job of consulting regional allies regarding the status of the talks with Iran. It is concerning that Biden has not yet visited the region since becoming president. Considering the high stakes, his absence from the region is geopolitical negligence. At a minimum, he should be routinely speaking to his counterparts in the Gulf — but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact.
Since Biden entered the White House on Jan. 21, Iran has not demonstrated any genuine desire to enter into meaningful talks or to change its malign behavior. The recent kidnapping plot and the rocket attacks targeting US diplomats are the latest examples of this.
Until Biden changes his approach, and until Iran wants to negotiate with the US more than the US wants to talk to Iran, nothing is going to change.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey