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Europe sees a narrow window for Biden to revive Iran nuclear deal

Iranians walk past posters of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, right, and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh died in an ambush in November, and Solemani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN — Washington's European allies hope the incoming Biden administration will take swift steps to restore the Iran nuclear deal amid mounting pressures, including Tehran's boost in uranium enrichment and elections later this year that could usher in a more hard-line government.

President-elect Joe Biden had expressed continued support for the pact forged while he was vice president in the Obama administration, which granted some sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Biden's nominee for deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, helped hammer out the Iran deal in 2015.

But it's unclear how receptive Iran's leadership remains to renegotiate with world powers after President Trump pulled out. And Europe sees a tight window of opportunity following the president-elect's inauguration on Wednesday.

Iran's presidential election in June could bring in a new government that's more in line with hard-liners within the inner circle of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word in all key decisions.

“We are running out of time,” said Omid Nouripour, a member of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “Every single day we don’t talk, and there are no inspections, the centrifuges are running faster and faster,” he said referring to a possible future breakdown of the inspection system. Iran is currently in compliance with international nuclear inspections.

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An International Atomic Energy Agency report issued earlier this month, and viewed by The Washington Post, stated that Iran has informed the Vienna-based organization that it had begun working on equipment needed to produce uranium metal, which can be used to produce nuclear warheads.

It represents a further Iranian breach of the deal, under which Tehran has said it would reduce its commitments since the Trump administration withdrew in 2018 and imposed wide-ranging sanctions. Earlier this month, Iran said it had resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment at its Fordow nuclear facility, putting it closer to being able to enrich the 90 percent needed for a nuclear weapon.

That level of enriched uranium can be used for research reactors. Iran’s leadership asserts that its nuclear activities are peaceful.

But the moves ramp up pressure for European nations that want to salvage the 2015 agreement with the help of the incoming Biden administration.

The IAEA report, details of which were first published by the Wall Street Journal, said Iran had already manufactured some of the equipment needed for the production of uranium metal and showed it to the agency’s inspectors during a Jan. 10 visit to the nuclear site in Isfahan.

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Iran said the installation of the equipment needed for the first stage of production was expected to be completed in four to five months, according to the report, indicating that the later two stages of the production process were “still in the design phase” and no timeline was available.

“There is certainly an awareness that a few things are happening in parallel,” said Naysan Rafati, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

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There is the potential for a further escalation in Iran’s breaches of the deal in February under a law passed in Tehran following the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November, Rafati said.

In the wake of Fakhrizadeh’s killing, Iran’s conservative parliament expedited legislation requiring the government to ramp up certain nuclear activities unless key sanctions are lifted. The bill’s swift passage was driven by political hard-liners eager to pressure the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose government negotiated the deal ahead of the presidential elections in June.

The law calls for everything from stepping up uranium enrichment — as happened this month — to installing advanced centrifuges. It includes a Feb. 21 deadline for restoring sanctions relief or, it says, Iran will limit the work of United Nations inspectors.

Such a move would allow IAEA inspectors to remain in Iran but would hinder their ability to verify whether its nuclear program is peaceful, experts say, and is likely to draw international condemnation.

Rouhani staked his political legacy to the nuclear deal, with his more moderate faction suffering in parliamentary elections last year as Iranians failed to reap its promised benefits under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. 

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Analysts say that does not bode well for moderates in June’s vote, in which Rouhani cannot run for reelection under term limits.

“A change in Iranian administration doesn’t necessarily end a diplomatic process, because ultimately Iran’s nuclear decision-making is bigger than just the executive,” Rafati said. But it makes it more difficult, so Europe is keen to “get as much traction as possible between now and then with the team that they have worked with in the past,” he said.

The ruling clerics under Khamenei even have the power to vet the presidential field to ensure a hard-line successor to Rouhani.

“There is a fear that Iran isn’t bluffing, and if access to international monitors is restricted, that would be incredibly worrying,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an expert on European policy regarding Iran at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The sense is that there needs to be some sort of policy position formulated by the [Biden] administration, sooner rather than later, to prevent a major escalation by Iran on the nuclear activity side.”

Questions over next steps

There appear to be convergent views in Europe on how to move forward.

Returning to the 2015 deal is “probably not sufficient,” said one European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Critics of the deal have pointed to the fact that it does not cover issues such as Iran’s nonnuclear military activity.

But Nouripour said he believed that would need to be part of separate talks. “We have to address all of the issues, but I do not see that happening in one framework,” he said.

On Monday, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Europe “deeply regrets the worrying steps taken by Iran over the past two years,” calling the initiation of uranium development of up to 20 percent “a matter of deep concern.”

But he said the European Union “reiterates its strong commitment” to the deal and acknowledges the issues stemming from the unilateral withdrawal of the United States.

For the moment, Europe is hamstrung in its ability to speak to the incoming Biden administration because of the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for the transition team to negotiate with foreign governments. Instead, countries have gleaned what they can from public statements.

In a CNN opinion piece in September, Biden called the Trump administration’s Iran policy a “dangerous failure,” saying the deal had “put the world’s eyes and ears inside Iran’s nuclear program and was verifiably blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.”

He wrote that he would offer Tehran “a credible path back to diplomacy.”

Borrell said in a statement that the European Union welcomes Biden’s “positive statements” on the deal “and [looks] forward to working with the incoming US-Administration.”

Such nominees as Sherman mean Biden’s team can “hit the ground running” on the issue, even though it remains “deeply divisive” in Washington and abroad, Rafati said.

But a return to the deal will doubtlessly usher in vehement opposition from U.S. allies, including Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly opposed the deal from the outset. The “Israeli factor” adds more pressure to the timeline, Geranmayeh said.

The killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist in November was widely attributed to Israel, which has not confirmed or denied it was responsible. Earlier this week, fighter jets carried out the largest bombardment of Iranian-linked targets in Syria in years, with Damascus blaming Israel.

Netanyahu is assembling a diplomatic task force, possibly led by the head of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, dedicated to dissuading Biden from aligning too much with the European stance, Israeli media has reported.

Israel’s increased military rhetoric is another factor that is on the top of minds in Europe, Geranmayeh said: “That could open up a Pandora’s box.”

Cunningham reported from Istanbul. Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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