Few Biden advisors don’t want Iran sanctions to be lifted abruptly


Hugh Fitzgerald

Although it seems too good to be true, Israel Hayom reports that some of President-elect Biden’s advisers do not want him to simply lift sanctions and reenter the JCPOA, the flawed nuclear deal, with Iran. Apparently, Biden’s original Iran strategy amounted to plucking defeat from the jaws of victory, by lifting those most effective, because crippling, sanctions imposed by President Trump, and rejoining the JCPOA, as Iran insists, without any modifications, has not met with universal approval in the Biden camp. Some advisors want him to take advantage of what Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions managed to accomplish – putting Iran’s economy in a parlous state — in order to ensure that Iran will accept an amended nuclear deal, one that would curtail Iran’s missile program (not mentioned in the original JCPOA) and its regional aggression (hardly mentioned in the original JCPOA). This would be a reversal of what we were earlier told Biden was certain to do: to simply return to the original JCPOA, without pushing Iran to make any concessions on missiles or other matters.

The story is here: “Biden may stay out of JCPOA for now, leverage US sanctions,” by Ariel Kahana, Israel Hayom, December 14, 2020:

Although president-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy team has publicly said that the new administration would seek to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and make it “longer and better,” according to new information obtained by Israel Hayom, several advisers to the future president have been pushing for a new approach that favors embracing some of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy components.

Israel Hayom has learned that among some of Biden’s advisers, there is a belief that adopting a conciliatory tone toward Iran would be counterproductive.

That’s the beginning of wisdom. A conciliatory tone is understood by Iran’s rulers not as a gesture intended to lessen tensions but as an admission of weakness, one that merely whets Iran’s appetite for pushing for more concessions, rather than responding in kind. Iran is the neighborhood bully, and needs – as Trump understood – to be treated as such, not placated but punished for its behavior. And it worked; Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions; Iran’s economy sank and the country became much weaker; it had to cut sharply its subsidies to proxies and allies around the Middle East, and especially to Hezbollah. Iran promised to do terrible things to the U.S., the Great Satan, for assassinating Qassem Soleimani, but only managed to lob 22 missiles at two airbases at Erbil and Ayn al-Asad in Iraq, where American servicemen were stationed. And Tehran didn’t want major casualties, for fear of what the Americans might then do. Tehran gave plenty of warning to the Iraqi government about that impending attack; the Iraqis – as Iran’s leaders knew they would — then told the Americans, who were thus able to prepare and minimize casualties. As a consequence, about 100 servicemen suffered mild concussions from the blasts, but nothing more serious. No Americans were killed. As for Israel, Iran promised to wreak a terrible vengeance for the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, but many weeks later, Iran has still done nothing against Israel, and has instead talked about “strategic patience” – which suggests that vengeance, if it comes at all, will be far in the future. Some think Iran will never dare retaliate, for all of its threats, for it knows how devastating an Israeli response could be.

According to some officials in Biden’s orbit, it would be a mistake to squander the gains of the outgoing administration by turning back the clock in one fell swoop and returning to the Iran deal along the terms set by the official document, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action from 2015.

Instead, they call for using the tough US sanctions that have been imposed over the past several years as leverage against Iran so that it agrees to amend the nuclear deal, essentially adopting the strategy pursued by Trump, who has hoped the crippling sanctions would convince Iran to agree to add restrictions on its missile program and other aspects that were all but left out of the JCPOA, such as its regional aggression.

Could it be that despite all the statements in the past that go the other way, the Biden administration has been suddenly endowed with enough sense to recognize that Trump’s sanctions have worked exactly as intended? And that the Biden team is no longer in such a hurry to lift them, but will use the promise of lifting them after Iran agrees to modifying the JCPOA to include the country’s missile program, and curtails its aggressive activities in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon?

The conventional wisdom is that Biden will eventually opt to strike a balance between the two approaches: He would stay out of the deal in the immediate future but would also extend various good-will gestures that could entice Tehran to change the deal.

Some in the transition team have also been critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his public warning that the US should not re-enter the deal. According to a person close to the transition team, the “new administration would like to engage in dialogue with Israel on the necessary changes that need to be introduced in the deal, but this discussion has to be held behind closed doors.” The sources said that “we have avoided statements on Israeli positions, whereas the prime minister and his ambassador in Washington have [expressed comments on US views].

Prime Minister Netanyahu is now being criticized by some in Biden’s transition team for his consistency. He is now doing exactly what he has been doing ever since 2015, when he addressed Congress on why he thought the JCPOA was a flawed and dangerous deal – and thereby angered Barack Obama. While Trump was in office, there was no need for Netanyahu to make the case against the JCPOA; Trump needed no convincing; he was determined to quit it, and in May, 2018, he did. Now that Trump is out, Netanyahu has felt the need to return to his former task, of continuing to state clearly exactly why he thinks the JCPOA is a terrible deal, for Israel, for America, and for the rest of the civilized world. Does he deserve criticism for this? Doesn’t he have a duty to stand up for his own nation’s security? Iran’s nuclear and missile programs together threaten the very existence of the Jewish state. Now is not the time for diplomatic niceties. He’s right to continue to make his case publicly, rather than limit himself to “discussions behind closed doors.” What most offends the Biden Transition Team, one suspects, is the lucidity and thoroughness with which Prime Minister Netanyahu makes his case.

The source said that “Biden is not Barack Obama, and it is no coincidence that the senior appointments in his foreign policy team are not Obama’s people.”

There is evidence to that effect. The new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, began serving in the government long before Barack Obama arrived on the scene. He has been known as a Biden man for twenty years. In 2002, Blinken was appointed staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations, a position he served in until 2008. Blinken assisted then-Senator Joe Biden, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 2009 to 2013, Blinken served as the National Security Adviser to Vice-President Biden. From 2014 he served as Deputy Secretary of State, working under John Kerry, but maintaining his close working relationship with Biden.

The new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, served in the Obama Administration, mainly as the National Security Adviser to Biden, and then became Biden’s top security aide in February 2013 after Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State. So like Blinken, Sullivan can be thought of as a Biden, rather than an Obama, man.

Despite his previous insistence during the campaign that if elected he would at once return to the JCPOA, the latest reports suggest that Biden has apparently been persuaded by some of his advisors to keep most, if not all, Trump’s sanctions in place for now, and not to return to the nuclear deal until Iran agrees to include as part of it limits on its missile development. The three European states that are in the JCPOA – the U.K., France, and Germany – have let it be known that because of Iran’s repeated violations of the nuclear deal, as reported by the I.A.E.A. (International Atomic Energy Agency), including enriching far more uranium at far higher levels than is allowed under the deal, preventing inspectors from visiting certain sites, failing to explain the presence of nuclear materials at several sites the inspectors did visit, and installing inside a mountain at Natanz three cascades of advanced centrifuges that violate the limits set in the J.C.P.O.A., they are in no hurry to have Washington return to the nuclear deal, and now agree that the original deal must be modified to include the regulation of ballistic missiles. Since President Rouhani has already stated that Iran will not accept any modification of the terms of the JCPOA, the stage is set for an indefinite delay in an American return to the nuclear deal.. And that is a very good thing.


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