Did The Mullahs Overplay Their Hand?
Giving Biden one month to call their bluff.
It is still unclear what the Biden Administration will do about the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Biden has at times expressed a willingness to rejoin the JCPOA, without any change to the agreement, and at other times, he has suggested that he would join the deal only if it were modified to include limits on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its regional aggression, through a network of proxies and allies — from the Houthis in Yemen, to Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, to the Alawite-led army In Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon – to create a “Shi’a crescent” from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Now Iran, has apparently given Washington a deadline to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal. In so doing, it appears to have overplayed its hand.
The latest report, on the time table that Iran now demands be met by Washington, is here: “Will Iran overplaying its hand force Biden to call its bluff – analysis,” by Yonah Jeremy Bob, Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2021:
Israel and Iran have both been maneuvering to influence the incoming Biden administration regarding the nuclear standoff. But only the Islamic Republic has given a deadline.
Iran has said that if sanctions are not dropped by February 21 it would kick out IAEA inspectors, a most dramatic nuclear violation since it would make it impossible for the world to follow the status of its nuclear program, absent clandestine efforts.
Iran has thus given Biden exactly one month to remove the sanctions that the Trump Administration had placed on it; otherwise, Iran will expel the IAEA nuclear inspectors, leaving it able, without that monitoring, to go for broke on its nuclear program.
Along with Tehran’s recent jump-starting the enrichment of its uranium to the 20% level, this could signal to Israel, moderate Sunni states and even the West that the ayatollahs are moving toward a nuclear weapon. Iran also demanded this week the dropping of the 2015 deal’s snapback sanctions mechanism.
Given that Iran has violated many parts of the 2015 deal, one wonders why the Biden Administration thinks that this time will be different, and if the Americans lift the sanctions, Tehran will now adhere scrupulously to the agreement, which it has never done in the past.
Though the incoming Biden administration has signaled that it wants to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal and roll back sanctions, there is no way sanctions can be removed in the administration’s first month in office.
Even if it wanted to roll back the sanctions in only 30 days, there is a complex sanctions machinery that may take longer to remove. Moreover, Joe Biden has made it clear that his first priority is the coronavirus pandemic, followed by addressing other domestic priorities, including the fallout from the rioters’ attacks on the Capitol, racial justice issues, and the environment.
In foreign policy, his first priorities are dealing with China and Russia. Biden will not want to waste significant political capital in the first stage of his presidency looking too weak on Iran, even if his general goal is to rejoin the deal. Moreover, having a Democratic majority in the US Senate does not mean that he will avoid a vote against a quick rejoining of the Iran deal, given that some Democrats oppose rejoining….
In insisting that sanctions be lifted by one month after Biden’s inauguration, the Iranians have made an error: they assume that the Biden Administration regards its relations with Iran as the most important issue, the very first thing, it needs to address. But the Biden Administration is of a different opinion: there are many other matters that it believes must be deal with first. The Administration has clearly spoken about those other priorities; they’ve been published in the press. One begins to wonder: don’t the Iranians read our papers? If so, they would discover that even those in the administration who might most favor lifting the sanctions know that it can’t possibly happen during that first month .It is going to happen only after a long political fight; Biden will not want to use up capital on Iran relations that he might want to save for other battles. Biden has listed his other, much more important priorities during his first months n office. First, there is the conronavirus pandemic, and his stated determination to “vaccinate 100 million Americans in the first 100 days.” That will be a complicated effort, involving both logistics and psychology – convincing millions of anti-vaxxers that the vaccines are safe — that will require a great deal of his administration’s attention. And assuming that initial goal is met, Biden will need to continue the breakneck pace of the vaccination effort, to have another 210 million Americans (20 million will have been vaccinated before January 20) vaccinated before the end of 2021.
Then there are the other issues Biden and Harris have promised to immediately address, including racial justice (one wonders just what that means, in the current heated environment) and police reform. And for the Administration the most important issue, over the long term, is climate change. Biden has said he wants to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. But there are many related undertakings that will occupy his administration in its first months. These include providing tax credits to encourage people to buy electric vehicles, and allocating the billions necessary to build out a national network of roadside recharging stations. It will also include greatly increasing residential and commercial use of solar energy through tax credits, and halting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It will no doubt pain Tehran to realize that the Biden administration has many other matters on its To-Do List before reaching “Iran, Sanctions and Paris Deal.”
Another consideration for the Biden administration is that it cannot be seen to yielding to an ultimatum from Iran (“ lift those sanctions by Feb. 21 or we kick out all the IAEA inspectors at once”); it would make Biden look weak. That’s a perception he cannot afford. The Islamic Republic believes it was successful using brinkmanship to corner the Obama administration into dropping certain issues. It appears that the ayatollahs have seized on the multiple statements by incoming Biden administration officials of their desire to rejoin the deal in order to make additional demands. Of course, it is possible that this could work, and Biden could announce in principle his rejoining of the deal by February 21, with actual sanctions relief applied afterward.
While his domestic agenda – his To-Do List – will keep Biden from dealing with Iran’s demands in the first few months of his administration, the Islamic Republic itself will also need time – three to four months – to fullfil its part of a possible bargain, by undoing all of its violations of the Paris deal, including giving up the stocks of uranium it has enriched, to a level of 20%, well beyond what the JCPOA permits. How long will it take Iran to gather that uranium and ship it out of the country to the IAEA headquarters?
The Iranians have badly misplayed their hand. Above all there is: the coronavirus vaccine rollout, which will be the main focus for many months, followed by attempts to “deal with police reform and “racial justice” measures, and — what is likely for the Bidenites to be the most important task of all — passing environmental legislation. After the country returns to the Paris Agreement on climate, legislative battles will follow, as the Administration tries to meet its commitments under that agreement to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels and to encourage the transition to renewables. The Administration will push for a massive increase, through tax credits, in the use of electric vehicles, and will also push for a government-funded national network of charging stations along our highways. The government can similarly promote – with subsidies or tax credits—a great increase in the use of residential and commercial solar energy. Only then will the Biden administration turn its attention to what deal with Iran it may be willing to consider, and according to its own timetable, rather than to an Iranian ultimatum. I suspect that Iran will be in for a shock; members of Biden’s national security team have been discussing modifications — concerning ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional aggression — they now want to have included in a Paris Deal 2.0.
What should Iran have done? Had it understood Biden’s fear of appearing weak, it would never have issued an ultimatum. Instead, it could have said, striking a conciliatory note, that it “welcomes a more reasonable administration in Washington, has high hopes of collaborating with Washington and other members of the JCPOA, and is prepared, without delay, to immediately renew its full cooperation with the IAEA’s inspectors, just as soon as American sanctions are lifted.”
That’s all lies, of course: Iran will continue to violate its solemn commitments under the Paris Agreement.. It will continue to enrich uranium to a level beyond what was agreed, will continue to work on the nuclear facilities inside a mountain at Fordo, will continue to mislead inspectors about other nuclear sites it still has not revealed. It’s Iran’s modus operandi; it was only thanks to Mosssad’s seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive in 2018 that the world learned of several nuclear sites that Iran had kept secret from inspectors. Why wouldn’t it continue the same kinds of deceptions it had practiced before?
Not only will the new administration not be willing, nor able, to meet Iran’s February 21 deadline, but this display of attempted bullying by Iran will strengthen the hand of those in the Administration who want the sanctions lifted only after Iran has agreed to a more comprehensive treaty, one that includes, as mentioned above, limits on ballistic missiles, and curbs on Iran’s regional aggression, through Shi’a proxies and allies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran will be chagrinned, disabused, angry, when it had been expecting a very different result, but in the end, it will have to give in, if it ever hopes to emerge from its current economic collapse.