Biden advisor tells Israelis: Top priority will be re-entering the Iran deal

Oh, goody. How long does it take to stack pallets of cash, anyway? Joe Biden did make it clear that he would reset American foreign policy back to the prior administration’s posture, and explicitly talked about re-entering the Iran deal during the campaign. One could even say that Biden is making good on a campaign promise.


Usually those are made to voters and not Iranian mullahs, but six of one, half-dozen of another:

A former senior aide to Joe Biden said rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was “high on his agenda” and that the US president-elect would move to do so shortly after taking office.

“I believe that in the first months [of Biden’s presidency], we’ll either see him rejoin the deal fully, or what I would call ‘JCPOA-minus,’ meaning lifting sanctions in exchange for suspending some of the Iranian nuclear programs [developed] in the past three years,” Amos Hochstein said Sunday in an interview in Hebrew with Channel 12 news.

Hochstein, who served at the State Department and oversaw energy sanctions on Iran during former president Barack Obama’s tenure, said Biden wants “some changes” to the pact clinched in 2015 — and abandoned by US President Donald Trump in 2018 — including its expiration date.

That’s hardly great news for the Israelis. The Trump administration’s decision to use a maximum-pressure campaign to contain Iran allowed for the diplomatic progress between the Arab nations in the region and Jerusalem that has peaked with the Abraham Accords. The previous appeasement strategy fractured the Arab alliance against Tehran and threatened to touch off a nuclear-arms race in the region. Anything that tilts the US back towards the Iranians threatens to stop that progress and reduce Israel’s usefulness to Arab nations in a united front against Iranian hegemonic strategies in the region.


Needless to say, it also threatens Israel in another way, since the Palestinians have been allying themselves more with Iran over the last couple of decades. Any economic respite in Iran from a new JCPOA or even a “JCPOA-minus” would allow more resources to flow out of Iran to the Palestinians for attacks on Israel. Iran would use that economic boost to conduct terror operations elsewhere too, but everyone knows where they’d want to focus most. You can bet the Israelis know that.

Moreover, this is an odd time to float this biscuit, especially in Israel. Even the United Nations is taking a tougher line on Iran than Biden appears to be. In a new report, the UN accuses Tehran of cheating on the limits of nuclear production in the JCPOA, to which they claim to still be adhering in agreements with the European Union:

Iran is continuing to build up its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and now holds roughly 12 times the amount permitted under the 2015 nuclear agreement, the United Nations Atomic Agency said in a report.

The report’s findings underscore the challenge the incoming Biden administration faces in persuading Iran to fully return to the 2015 nuclear deal: Besides the stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which when further refined can be used to fuel a nuclear weapon, Iran is also taking steps to potentially accelerate its production of low-enriched uranium and is continuing its nuclear research. …

In its latest quarterly report, sent to member states and seen by The Wall Street Journal, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had now accumulated a low-enriched uranium stockpile of 2,443 kilograms. That compares with a limit of 203 kg under the nuclear deal.

Of the total, which the agency said is enriched up to 4.5% purity, around a quarter has been produced in a way that nuclear experts say would be of little use for further enrichment. Nonetheless, Iran has now accumulated enough enriched uranium to produce the high-enriched uranium needed for two nuclear weapons, according to analysts at the Institute for Science and International Security. Weapons-grade material is of around 90% purity.


They’re also cheating on the centrifuge issue:

The report also detailed various moves by Iran to install more-advanced centrifuges, which can produce enriched uranium much more quickly, at its nuclear facilities. That could allow Iran to step up its enriched-uranium production in coming months.

Among the more important changes was Iran’s decision to install a first group of so-called IR-2M centrifuges at its underground enrichment site at the Natanz facility, breaching one of the nuclear deal’s terms.

Well, this certainly looks like a regime we can trust in the future! The truth is that Iran has been cheating all along, but even if they hadn’t, the JCPOA was still a bad deal. It only committed Iran to halting development of nuclear weapons for a decade, not permanently, and it put all of the incentives for Iran up front in lifting economic sanctions and unfreezing assets. The pallets of cash were actually just an appetizer — Iran recovered around $150 billion in assets up front. That money went, predictably, into creating proxy armies in the region and funded IRGC operations against American forces, run by the late and mainly unlamented Qassem Soleimani.

So just how quickly can Biden resuscitate the shameful Iran deal? Bloomberg analysts Golnar Motevalli and David Wainer suggest that Hochstein is out over his skis:

Iran’s mid-2021 presidential election, as well as likely continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate, will put the brakes on quick, substantive action, according to U.S. and Iranian diplomats and analysts. In addition, Biden has signaled that his priorities starting Jan. 20 will be on the economy and getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.

“I am not optimistic at all that in the short term anything significant will happen between Iran and the Americans,” Saeed Laylaz, an economist and former adviser to ex-President Mohammad Khatami, said in an interview. “It’s not impossible, but it will be extremely difficult.” …

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — who leaves office next year after staking his political legacy and reputation on the nuclear accord reached during the Obama administration — referred to Biden as “the new man who’s arrived” and had campaigned on returning to the accord. “If they stick to their responsibilities they can choose the new path,” he said.

But uncertainty about Rouhani’s successor, and the potential that elections could lead to a much harder-line government, will probably temper Biden’s enthusiasm to get something done quickly.

In addition, while presidents generally have some leeway on foreign policy, a Senate under Republican control would mean lawmakers would demand assurances on Biden’s Iran policy before they confirm his nominees, said Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official under Trump.


And just in case, the soon-to-be-outgoing-at-some-point Trump administration is trying to make the path as difficult as possible, the Times of Israel notes:

Quoting Israeli and Arab sources, Walla news said US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliot Abrams is planning to announce a raft of fresh sanctions on Iran every week from now until January 20. These sanctions will reportedly target Iran’s missile program and its support for terrorist groups, as well as focus on its human rights violations, making it harder for Biden to roll back such punishments. …

“The goal is as many sanctions as possible by January 20,” an unnamed Israeli official was quoted as saying.

An Arab official involved in the negotiations told the news site, “The goal of the Trump administration is to impose sanctions that Biden cannot lift.”

Anything imposed by a president can be revoked by a succeeding president — legally, anyway. Politically, it’s a different matter. Would Biden ignore human-rights violations and state support for terror in waiving sanctions to get back to the JCPOA? Don’t forget that Barack Obama ignored all of that — and more — to make the JCPOA deal in the first place. A Republican Senate might be the only real obstacle in a Biden administration.

Update: I erroneously wrote that the UN was taking a tougher line on Israel than Biden, but of course I meant Iran. I’ve fixed it above, and thanks to my good pal Ed Driscoll for noticing it.


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