By Michael Lipin
Top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken has signaled that U.S. sanctions on Iran will remain in place for some time as Washington waits to see if Tehran verifiably stops violating a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers before potentially rejoining the deal that the prior U.S. administration quit.
Speaking Wednesday in his first news conference since being sworn in the previous day as secretary of state, Blinken said the U.S. is a “long way” from the point of fulfilling President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to rejoin the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Iran resumes compliance with it.
“Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts, and it would take some time, should it make a decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance, and (some time) for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So, we’re not there yet, to say the least,” Blinken said.
Biden, who took office last week, has promised to offer Iran a “credible path back to diplomacy” if it returns to “strict compliance” with the JCPOA, in which it agreed to curb nuclear activities that could be diverted toward making nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief from world powers.
Iran has been escalating its violations of JCPOA nuclear curbs since 2019 in retaliation for the 2018 withdrawal from the deal by former President Donald Trump, who unilaterally tightened U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
Trump said he quit the JCPOA because it did not do enough to curb a range of objectionable behaviors by Iran, including attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
Tehran has vowed to resist U.S. sanctions and has insisted that its nuclear program is peaceful.
Blinken reiterated Biden’s position that if Iran returns to JCPOA compliance, the U.S. would rejoin it as a “starting point” toward further negotiations.
“We would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we call the longer and stronger agreement, and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran,” he said.
U.S. administrations have long criticized Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, its support for Islamist militias engaged in conflicts with the U.S. and its allies, its detentions of Americans as bargaining chips for prisoner swaps, and its poor human rights record.
The U.S. military said it flew a B-52H bomber over the Middle East on Wednesday to “showcase (its) commitment” to the security of U.S. allies in the region who have felt threatened by Iran.
The Associated Press said flight tracking data showed the bomber flew over the Persian Gulf after taking off from a U.S. base in Louisiana. It was the sixth such overflight since November, when then-President Donald Trump authorized the sorties to deter Iran from attacking the U.S. or its allies while Washington was consumed in political turmoil stemming from that month’s presidential election. Wednesday’s sortie also was the first since Biden took office, signaling that his administration intends to continue them as a regular practice.
Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special representative for Iran who left office last week, told VOA Persian he believes Blinken was “realistic” in assessing no quick U.S. return to the JCPOA.
“(Blinken was) far more realistic than a lot of (the JCPOA’s) proponents in Congress and the think tank world. He clearly said Iran must move first, and that Iran’s claims to be back in compliance would need to be assessed before the U.S. would presumably act to lift sanctions. That means this is a matter of months, not weeks,” wrote Abrams, who has returned to his role as a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Such a timeline may be too slow for Tehran, whose ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, wrote in a Wednesday op-ed in The New York Times that the Biden administration should “swiftly” remove all sanctions imposed by Trump before Iran considers returning to its JCPOA obligations.
“Biden and his administration should know that any delay in the lifting of sanctions will be construed as a sign of continued animosity toward the Iranian people,” Takht-Ravanchi said. “The window is closing. If the new administration does not meet its obligations and remove sanctions in short order, it will destroy the possibility for engagement within the nuclear agreement.”
Naysan Rafati, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VOA Persian that the Biden administration has been consistent and deliberate in its Iran policy so far.
“It is engaging in initial discussions with U.S. allies who might have fairly divergent views, before showing its hand on the specifics of its approach,” Rafati said.
In the news conference, Blinken pledged that if Iran returns to JCPOA compliance, he will build a “strong team of experts” with “different perspectives” to determine how to proceed.
“One of the things that I feel about very strongly is that in any of the issues that we’re engaged on … that we are constantly questioning our own assumptions and premises, that we do not engage in groupthink and that there is as much self-criticism and self-reflection as we get from the outside. … So, I think you can expect to see that (approach) as we move forward with regard potentially to Iran, and for that matter, to just about any other issue we tackle,” he said.
Abrams said it is not yet clear if Biden will appoint a special representative for Iran, the same role he held under Trump’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo.
He also pointed out that Biden’s initial team of top aides includes other officials who negotiated the JCPOA under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president.
The Biden aides include National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State nominee Wendy Sherman and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.
“For the moment, the Biden-Blinken-Sullivan-Sherman-Kerry team is a JCPOA team and does not present the differing perspectives Blinken says he wants,” Abrams said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.