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Biden team exploring how U.S. might rejoin Iran nuclear deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, back, listens as President Biden speaks at the State Department on Feb. 4.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, back, listens as President Biden speaks at the State Department on Feb. 4. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Biden administration has begun mapping out how the United States might rejoin the international nuclear deal with Iran, as the White House pledged Friday to tightly align its Iran policy with European nations sidelined by the Trump administration.

A central question facing the White House is whether to trade U.S. actions for Iranian ones as a way of bringing both nations back within the fold of the 2015 agreement, something European nations generally support but many in Congress would be likely to oppose.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other newly installed officials held their first strategy session on the Middle East on Friday, and Blinken joined a group discussion with the European nations that were parties to the 2015 deal: Britain, France and Germany. Russia and China were also signatories to the deal.

In public briefings, White House and State Department officials stressed the administration’s efforts to coordinate with European allies and sought to lower expectations for swift action.

“This is not a decisional meeting. It’s not a meeting where policy will be concluded, and it’s not a meeting the president of the United States will be attending,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the gathering of senior officials at the White House.

The timeline for a potential resurrection of the deal is “really up to Iran,” she added. “If Iran comes back into full compliance with the obligations” of the deal, “the United States would do the same, and then use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”

Iran is one of Biden’s most vexing foreign policy challenges, as he seeks to engage its leaders while challenging its influence in the Middle East and its support of terrorism. Even U.S. officials who back the Iran deal as a crucial step in curbing its nuclear ambitions view the nation as a severely destabilizing force.

During his candidacy, Biden’s position was to place the onus on Iran to stop pursuing nuclear activities that break its commitments under the deal before the United States would rejoin. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, saying it was a bad deal for the United States, a view rejected by Biden.

Biden national security adviser says Iranian threat is an urgent priority

The Biden administration has not directly addressed a suggestion by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that the United States move toward rejoining the deal at the same time that Iran takes steps to come back into compliance.

One fundamental question discussed in the U.S. meetings Friday, with a decision still to come, is whether to seek incremental moves to get the process moving again or to insist on one big agreement that goes beyond Iran’s nuclear program.

The administration has said — and many in Congress have insisted — that any deal that releases Iran from sanctions must include negotiated restrictions on its ballistic missile program and on its support for proxy forces fighting in other countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

“It’s much too early to say right now how it’s going to sequence,” said one European official. The most important thing, this official said, “is that the E-3 and the Americans move forward on the same page. If they don’t, the Iranians are going to exploit the fissures.”

The E-3 refers to the three European parties to the deal. The official, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.

Iran has said the ball is in the U.S. court.

“Why on earth should Iran — a country that stood firm & defeated 4 years of a brutal US economic terrorism . . . show goodwill gesture first?” Zarif tweeted late last month. “It was the US that broke the deal — for no reason. It must remedy its wrong; then Iran will respond.”

Iran’s parliament threatened to block some international inspections unless the new administration drops sanctions by later this month. The Biden administration is also eyeing Iranian elections in June that could yield a more hard-line government.

Iran has several times proposed turning over the negotiations to Josep Borrell, who in addition to serving as the European Union’s foreign policy chief is also, under the original agreement, the coordinator of the deal and of the joint commission that supervises its implementation.

Although Iran is chiefly seeking the removal of U.S. economic sanctions reimposed under the Trump administration, there are other possible gestures the United States could take as a means to grease negotiations, diplomats said.

One option might be to lift objections to Iran receiving a coronavirus-related loan from the International Monetary Fund, something Biden’s new envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, floated last year.

Europe sees a narrow window to revive Iran nuclear deal

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron offered to be an “honest broker” in any renewed diplomacy between the United States and Iran. “We do need to finalize, indeed, a new negotiation with Iran,” he said during a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council on Thursday.

Although rejoining the 2015 Iran deal was among the few foreign policy priorities Biden laid out before the election, he did not mention the deal or ongoing concerns about Iran during his first major foreign policy address Thursday.

After Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran began breaking its commitments under the agreement in response.

Iran’s violations, which include processing material that could potentially be used for a nuclear bomb, greatly complicate the current outlook for negotiations, one of the European officials said.

“To give them more money at the moment, without getting something in exchange, would be very difficult,” the official said.

Still, the official said, “it ought to be possible for both the United States and Iran to map out what the first steps should be and get some calibration between them.”

Iran, for example, frequently complains about additional oil sanctions the Trump administration imposed after it pulled out of the deal. The United States could lift some of those measures, perhaps allowing for trade with Asia, in exchange for Iran reversing recent steps like increasing both the quantity and quality of enriched uranium it is producing.

“But they’d have to have a firm commitment from the Iranians that we could all believe, and we don’t get many of those,” the European official said.

Another option is to unfreeze some of the Iranian funds from oil sales that were passing through the U.S. financial system when Trump tightened the sanctions. The money could be passed through Switzerland, which has maintained an opening for the flow of humanitarian funding to Iran.

The Iranians have charged that European companies, which had made significant investments there under the deal, pulled out because the United States made it difficult.