In this instance, what isn’t said might be as important as what is said. Joe Biden offered to “re-engage” on Iran in coordination with the P5+1 partners that put together Barack Obama’s 2015 Iran deal. However, Biden appeared to leave out a specific mention of a return to the JCPOA despite it being one of his campaign pledges. Instead, Biden upped the ante by making Iran’s “destabilizing actions” in the region part of the mix — while the Iranians insist that nothing else is on the table except the US return to the JCPOA after sanctions are lifted.
“We must also address Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East,” Biden added in a condition that indicates the JCPOA might still be dead in its previous form:
Nur kurz kommt Joe Biden auf der #MSC2021 auf Iran zu sprechen,ohne Details:“Brauchen Transparenz& Kommunikation,um das Risiko von Missverständnissen &Fehlern zu minimieren(…),deshalb bereiten wir uns wieder auf Verhandlungen mit den 5+1 über das Nuklearprogramm des Irans vor.“ pic.twitter.com/NuBzvtxCOE
— Katharina Willinger (@K_Willinger) February 19, 2021
Prior to this statement, both Politico and the New York Times reported that the momentum for a straight return to the JCPOA had stalled. The administration wants to re-engage for the sake of its European partners, but they want a much broader set of negotiations. The NYT emphasizes engagement, but notes that the 2015 Iran deal has far less than consensus support within the Biden team:
The United States took a major step on Thursday toward restoring the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned, offering to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years, Biden administration officials said.
In a series of moves intended to make good on one of President Biden’s most significant campaign promises, the administration also backed away from a Trump administration effort to restore United Nations sanctions on Iran. That effort had divided Washington from its European allies.
And at the same time, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told European foreign ministers in a call on Thursday morning that the United States would join them in seeking to restore the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which he said “was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy.” …
Mr. Blinken said this week that the Biden administration believed simply restoring the old deal was insufficient. He has other goals that include extending and deepening the agreement in an effort to rein in Iran’s growing missile ability and its continued support of terrorist groups and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, issues that Iran has said are not on table.
Politico’s reporting suggests that the pushback to a simple return to the JCPOA may be entirely off the table for Biden — which would contradict Biden’s campaign rhetoric. It would also be a tacit acknowledgment that the deal’s critics had a point all along:
One internal administration debate about the next steps has largely boiled down to this: Whether to aim for a return to the original nuclear deal first or seek a broader deal from the start. A broader deal could possibly include non-nuclear aspects, such as limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program, and have provisions that last longer than the original deal or are permanent. …
Three of the people, however, noted that Brett McGurk, a senior Middle East official on the National Security Council staff, is among the more hawkish voices on Iran – and that national security adviser Jake Sullivan at times takes a harder line than many of his colleagues.
Both of these senior national security officials may be more inclined to aim for a bigger deal immediately, rather than trying to resurrect the 2015 version, people familiar with the discussions said. That being said, Sullivan recently declared that containing Iran’s nuclear program is a “critical early priority” of the administration, signaling an eagerness to resolve the standoff.
Rob Malley, Biden’s special envoy for the Iran talks, is known to be more of an advocate for a return to the original nuclear deal. Others likely to be on his side include Jeff Prescott, a top official in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. The people familiar with the discussions said they weren’t entirely certain where Secretary of State Antony Blinken stands.
In this context, the careful omission of the terms “Iran deal” or JCPOA from Biden’s remarks might be a real signal that he’s now more inclined to keep pressure on Tehran. The Iranians will hold elections soon, and the renewed sanctions Trump imposed has created overwhelming economic pressure on the regime. That should provide some greater leverage to force the Iranians into limitations on missile systems and ending their terror proxy wars around the region, especially in Iraq and Syria. The recent bombing of a Western military installation might have forced Biden to take a harder line, although he has not yet responded to the provocation.
At the moment, these leaks hint that Biden’s working up a change of direction from his previous promises to restore the JCPOA. That’s good news, if Biden really intends on holding the Iranians’ feet to the fire.