Faced with the possibility of resuming negotiations with Iran in the coming weeks, President Biden on Saturday opened the door to the lifting of sanctions as part of a diplomatic effort to prevent Tehran from manufacturing nuclear weapons.
The offer was made as part of a joint statement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron. The four leaders met on the sidelines of the G-20 conference in Rome to plan their strategy against Iran, which sounded the alarm by increasing its enrichment of nuclear materials.
It will likely be difficult to break a diplomatic standoff that has persisted on the issue for months, and Biden has signaled he is unwilling to move forward without Tehran’s commitments.
“This will only be possible if Iran changes course,” the leaders said in their statement, adding that they urged the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, “to seize this opportunity and resume a good faith effort. to conclude our negotiations as a matter of urgency.This is the only sure way to avoid a dangerous escalation, which is not in the interest of any country.
Biden campaigned to revert to the Iran nuclear deal, which was struck by President Obama in 2015 and abandoned by President Trump three years later. Since then, the United States has targeted the Iranian economy with punitive sanctions; Tehran, in turn, has stepped up its nuclear activities.
“We are convinced that it is possible to quickly reach and implement an agreement on the return to full compliance and to ensure in the long term that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes,” the statement said.
Regional experts said there was no clear path to the initial agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
Vali Nasr, professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, doesn’t think the Biden administration has high hopes for negotiations and may no longer see the existing framework as viable.
The challenge, Nasr said, is to maintain unity with European allies, who are more interested in resuscitating the JCPOA. He said Saturday’s meeting shows Biden is “very keen to keep Europeans very close to the United States.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, described the United States and Europe as being closely aligned, telling reporters on Thursday that they “would all sing the same song on this issue.”
Russia and China, two other participants in the Iran nuclear deal, were not included in the joint statement or in Saturday’s meeting.
Simply getting back to the negotiating table, let alone reaching a new deal, has been a challenge. Robert Malley, the US special envoy to Iran, blamed Tehran for spending months stagnating. He said on Monday that “it’s hard to come up with an explanation, an innocent explanation for why they take so long.”
A break came on Wednesday when Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani said the country’s leaders agreed “to start negotiations before the end of November.”
No date has been set for the resumption of talks, and there are doubts in the White House that they will take place.
“We’ve heard some positive signals that they are, but I think we have to wait and see when and if they actually show up at the negotiating table,” Sullivan said.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said he was not surprised that the United States offered to ease the pressure on the Iranian economy.
“There is no going back to a deal if Biden doesn’t lift the sanctions,” he said.
But the United States faces a credibility problem, he said, after Trump withdrew from the original deal. Parsi said Iran “would like to have binding assurances that the Biden administration will stick to the deal.”
Michael Doran, a senior researcher at the Hudson Institute, said Biden should continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, where the United States increases sanctions until Tehran makes concessions.
However, he said, the Biden administration is likely to seek an informal deal where talks continue and neither side makes matters worse. In such a gray area, US sanctions are not lifted but are applied selectively, and Iran is not rushing to build a nuclear weapon.
“The deal will never come, but there will be informal deals along the way,” Doran said. “It’s convenient for Iranians and it’s convenient for Americans.”
The unrest in the Middle East has also compromised diplomatic efforts. More recently, Iran has been accused of a drone attack on a military base in Syria where US troops are based. No American casualties have been reported.
Brian Katulis, senior researcher and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, said the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles, drones and proxy forces would make it difficult to manage the nuclear program in isolation.
“In the real world, there is an escalation going on,” he said.
Katulis added: “It is not an environment of trust.”
Biden also advanced on economic issues during the first day of the G-20 summit.
Participating countries have approved a deal for a global minimum tax, a long-sought deal that aims to prevent companies from seeking tax shelters abroad.
“This agreement will make the world economy a more prosperous place for American businesses and workers,” said Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, who helped forge the agreement. “Rather than competing on our ability to offer lower fares, America will now be competing on the skills of our people, our ideas and our ability to innovate, which is a race we can win.”
However, it could prove difficult for Biden to push politics through a heavily divided Congress by 2023, when all countries are expected to enact the tax.
The United States and the European Union have also moved to resolve a trade dispute over steel and aluminum tariffs, which were implemented by Trump and left in place by Biden.
Under the agreement, the United States will implement a quota system under which tariffs will be levied on imports of metals in excess of a certain amount. The compromise aims to alleviate high prices but also to leave some protection in place for the US steel industry, which has been squeezed by foreign competition.
In return, the EU plans to lower its own tariffs on US imports.