Iran poses early test for Biden’s diplomacy-first approach

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President Biden’s decision to open the door to negotiations with Iran and other nations underscores a sharp turn away from his predecessor and back to the diplomacy-first foreign policy championed during the Obama years.

The Biden administration said Thursday that it would accept an invitation from the European Union to talk with Iran and the five other signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Trump withdrew from in 2018.

The decision by Biden was not surprising, given that he campaigned on rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But it came on a quick timeline as his administration looks to restore a deal they view as vital to nuclear arms control.

Former government officials acknowledge that rejoining the deal will be a difficult and long process. The developments of this week have already opened Biden up to criticism from Republicans who view the original agreement as flawed. They’re now sharpening their attacks on the new Democratic president.

Still, the move by Biden represents his latest effort to work with allies on shared challenges and use diplomacy as the primary tool to achieve foreign policy objectives, a near 180-degree turn away from Trump’s “America first” approach to international engagement.

“What it says more than anything else is that the objective is to make diplomacy a centerpiece of what we do, but also to demonstrate again that the alliance relationships are important, that we’ll work to reinvigorate them, that we’ll work with them,” said Dennis Ross, a former adviser to former President Obama and veteran diplomat who worked on Middle East policy.

It’s unclear whether Iran will ultimately agree to a meeting, though Ross suspected that Tehran would do so “grudgingly.” Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran would “immediately” reverse actions under its nuclear program if the U.S. lifts crippling sanctions imposed by Trump.

Iran has warned that it will restrict access of U.N. atomic agency inspectors beginning Tuesday, an effort to put pressure on the U.S. to remove the Trump-era sanctions.

Biden has said the U.S. will come back into compliance with the deal if Iran does the same. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One that the U.S. would not lift sanctions or take other steps before any meeting.

“This is about having a conversation about the path forward,” Psaki said Friday, noting that Iran is a “long way from compliance” with the 2015 accord.

In addition to opening the door to negotiations, the Biden administration on Thursday also reversed the Trump administration’s demand that the U.N. Security Council reimpose “snapback” sanctions on Iran and eased domestic travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed concern that the new administration was “already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Friday that the steps taken at the U.N. would align the U.S. with other members of the security council who disagreed with the snapback determination and therefore strengthen the U.S. position to engage with allies on Iran. 

“That deadlock weakened our ability to address Iran’s destabilizing activities,” Price said of the disagreement on snapback.

While the U.S. showed solidarity with European allies in expressing a willingness to hold talks with Iran, the move is unlikely to be welcomed by other allies like Israel and Gulf states.

Biden will need to address Iran’s proxy attacks in the region. Tehran is suspected in a rocket attack in Iraq that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded eight other people earlier this week, though the Biden administration has not publicly blamed Iran.

“We’re prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program,” Biden said in remarks at the virtual Munich Security Conference on Friday. “We must also address Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East, and we’re going to work in close cooperation with our European and other partners as we proceed.”

Ross said the challenge for Biden will be to demonstrate that he is not conceding anything to Iran upfront while also trying to change Tehran’s behavior.

“The main risk will be that the Iranians have obviously engaged in a posture of trying to build pressure on us, and the question will be whether they will draw the conclusion that the pressure is working,” Ross said.

Proponents of the 2015 deal argue that it represents the best way forward to constrain Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that Trump’s decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions made the global community less safe and left the U.S. isolated from allies. 

“The deal is not designed to create a perfect marriage of the U.S. and Iran. It is designed to prevent Iran from acquiring enough material for a nuclear weapon in a year,” said Jon Wolfsthal, senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under Obama. “The current position is worse than where we were under the Iran deal.” 

Wolfsthal also drew a distinction between critics of the deal who are genuinely opposed to it and those who have political motives. He surmised that Biden would work to bring lawmakers to the table who have concerns about rejoining the accord.

“There are reasonable people in the Congress, Republican and Democrat, who worry about what will happen in 10 or 15 years as the sunsets on the JCPOA kick in,” Wolfsthal said. “President Biden would like to extend the length of those commitments and I think there is a path to doing that.”

Critics argue that the original deal did not do enough to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and express concerns about the Biden administration lifting sanctions on Tehran before a sufficient deal is reached.

“I am not opposed to negotiations with Iran, but I think it would be a mistake to return to the original flawed agreement, many of whose most restrictive clauses are due to sunset,” said Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle East affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“To me, the problem with multilateral diplomacy is that U.S. interests get sacrificed and diluted in the back and forth,” Phillips said of Biden’s approach. 

The effort to open discussions with Iran will present an early test for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the rest of Biden’s foreign policy team as they look to assure allies and reassert the U.S. on the international stage.

The developments on Iran came as Biden met with Group of Seven (G7) partners and emphasized his commitment to alliances and multilateral engagement during the speech to the virtual Munich conference. Biden announced he would commit $2 billion to Covax, the international program to vaccinate poorer populations, and celebrated the U.S. officially rejoining the Paris climate agreement on Friday. 

“The whole strategy is the U.S., working with our allies, will be able to put this deal back together again unless Iran doesn’t want to,” said Wolfsthal. “That’s much better than the U.S. being to blame for the deal falling apart.”

Tags America first Antony Blinken Dennis Ross diplomacy first Donald Trump European Union Foreign policy Iran Iran nuclear deal Israel Jen Psaki Joe Biden Michael McCaul State Department Tehran U.S. allies United Nations

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