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Biden faces mounting hurdles on path to rejoin Iran deal

Biden faces mounting hurdles on path to rejoin Iran deal
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Biden says staff has spoken with Fauci: 'He's been very, very helpful' MORE is facing mounting hurdles to reenter the Iran nuclear deal as the Trump administration uses its final days in office to try to cement its so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.

With just two months left in his presidency, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE is levying more sanctions and selling weapons to Iran’s enemies. He also reportedly even considered military action after international inspectors confirmed Iran’s supply of nuclear fuel has swelled since Trump withdrew from the deal.

Political considerations in Tehran, too, could complicate Biden’s path to rejoining the deal, as Iran prepares for its own elections and demands compensation to make up for Trump’s sanctions.

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And while European allies are eager for a Biden administration to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, Israel has continued its strong opposition to the U.S. providing sanctions relief in the hopes of moderating Iran’s behavior and is bolstered by its growing alliance with Gulf countries.

“The Biden administration is going to have to face this sense of, ‘Well, we can't just snap our fingers and make maximum pressure disappear,’ ” said Kaleigh Thomas, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security. She added the administration will face a “political hurdle of how Biden messages to international partners and domestic partners and consults with them about, ‘Reentry to the JCPOA is just beginning for this whole U.S.-Iran policy that I've decided to undertake.’ ”

In a September op-ed for CNN, Biden pledged to offer Tehran “a credible path back to diplomacy,” saying he would return the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Iran “returns to strict compliance” with the agreement.

“I have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America's security interests, to our friends and partners and to its own people. But there is a smart way to be tough on Iran, and there is Trump's way,” Biden wrote.

“By any objective measure, Trump's ‘maximum pressure’ has been a boon to the regime in Iran and a bust for America's interests,” he added.

On Wednesday, while traveling through the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden's State Department picks are a diplomatic slam dunk Kissinger tells Biden to go easy on China Saudi-Israeli diplomacy progresses amid looming Middle East challenges MORE made clear more Iran sanctions will be imposed in “the coming weeks and months.”

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Pompeo, who has not acknowledged Biden won the election, also issued a warning to an unnamed audience that “we need not speculate about what a cessation of sanctions would imply for Iran’s funding for terrorism; we can simply look to the recent past.”

“Reducing that pressure is a dangerous choice, bound to weaken new partnerships for peace in the region and strengthen only the Islamic Republic,” Pompeo said in his Wednesday statement.

Europe is keen to work with the Biden administration on dealing with Iran, with the foreign ministers of France and Germany writing in an op-ed in The Washington Post about their hope to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and confront its destabilizing actions in the Middle East.

But Israel’s opposition, and its ties with other Gulf countries who are adversaries of Iran, are likely to provide a more robust resistance to any U.S. actions.

“We need to be consulted if there is any agreement — or to pursue any agreement with Iran,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani said in an interview with Axios on Wednesday.

The Trump administration has linked its sanctions campaign against Iran’s nuclear program with sanctions on its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, including funding of terrorist proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and its human rights abuses.

This strategy is likely to make it harder for Biden to provide meaningful financial relief in its pursuit of negotiations with Tehran, said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“It will be harder for a future Biden administration to just simply say ‘well that’s not an issue any longer, because we’re talking about a nuclear deal.’ That’s not how it works with terrorism, or some of these other activities,” he said. “The sanctions will be harder to remove.”

In a memo to clients and the media this week, political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group said Biden could rejoin the deal within six months, but that such a scenario is “very unlikely.”

“The Biden administration will have higher foreign and domestic policy priorities, key aspects of the nuclear accord will probably need revising, such as the sunset clauses, and Tehran will be hesitant to move quickly given domestic political considerations,” analysts for the Eurasia Group wrote in the note.

Biden has the power to immediately remove nuclear sanctions, the analysts added, “but he will almost certainly not do so while Iran remains in violation of key provisions of the nuclear accord.”

Iran began breaching key limits of the nuclear deal last year as the Trump administration imposed tighter and tighter sanctions on Tehran. But Iran has not completely abandoned the deal, continuing to allow international inspectors to monitor its activities.

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Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran now has more than 2,440 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. That is 12 times more than allowed under the nuclear deal and enough to potentially make at least two nuclear weapons, though Iran denies that’s its intention.

“Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced now than it was at the start of the maximum pressure campaign but in many ways it’s also still considerably more modest than it was before the deal was struck,” said Naysan Rafati, a senior analyst on Iran with the International Crisis Group.

“For the most part, the breaches that Iran has taken should be reversible and also should be verifiable by the IAEA,” he added. “It’s not a snap of the fingers process, it would probably take several weeks if not a couple of months for that process to happen.”

The IAEA report prompted Trump to ask senior advisers about military options for striking Iran’s main nuclear site, the New York Times reported this week. Advisers including Vice President Pence, Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark Milley Top Pentagon official tests positive for COVID-19 Khamenei adviser says US could spark 'full-fledged war' with strike Biden faces mounting hurdles on path to rejoin Iran deal MORE warned of the risks of sparking a broader conflict, according to the Times, and officials walked away from the meeting believing a missile strike is off the table.

“At any point in time, if there is an escalation of regional tensions even close the level that we saw that kicked off 2020 that's going to complicate everything further,” Thomas said, highlighting the Times report and a rocket attack in Iraq on Tuesday attributed to Iran-backed militias.

Given Biden has said he would rejoin the deal if Iran comes back into compliance, his administration will need to have either direct or indirect engagement with Iran about adhering to the deal, said Jon Wolfsthal, who served as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

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“It’s not an automatic, it’s not a given,” Wolfsthal said of rejoining the Iran deal, but added that if there is a will on the part of Iran there would be a will on the part of the United States.

In addition to Biden's conditions, Iran has its own demands that could be hard for Biden to accept. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is facing hardline opposition in Iran’s June 2021 presidential election, called Biden’s win an “opportunity” for the United States “to compensate for its previous mistakes,” suggesting Iran will seek money to make up for the economic losses caused by Trump’s sanctions.

Thomas said Iran’s demands for reimbursement stem from distrust, which Biden could address with confidence-building measures such as COVID-19 relief and lifting the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban that includes Iran.

In an interview with state media released Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif argued Biden could “lift all sanctions with three executive orders.”

“If Mr. Biden is willing to fulfill U.S. commitments,” Zarif said, “we too can immediately return to our full commitments in the accord.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report, which was updated at 10:36 a.m. Nov. 20.