Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif Puts Biden On the Spot

But he doesn't get the reaction he expected.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, has shown he believes that the Biden Administration can be threatened into rapidly submitting to Iran’s demand that it lift all sanctions on Iran without there being any change to the 2015 nuclear deal. In an interview with a leading Iranian newspaper, published on February 6, Zarif insisted that the Americans must do this “within two weeks” of his interview. It’s easy to see why Zarif might have assumed this would be possible. Biden has repeatedly mentioned his intention to return to that deal, and has appointed the pro-Iranian anti-Israel Robert Malley to be the Special Envoy on Iran. Zarif may think such a threat – “lift all sanctions by February 21 or else” Iran’s “stance will harden” – would work on the Biden Administration. But it is certain to have the opposite effect: neither Biden, nor Secretary Blinken, would want to be seen as succumbing to such blatant threats, and Zarif has badly miscalculated. A report on his demand, made in an interview with the Hamshahri newspaper, is here: “Iran FM tells Biden to rejoin nuclear deal within 2 weeks, before stance hardens,” Times of Israel, February 7, 2021:

Iran’s top diplomat urged US President Joe Biden on Saturday to act swiftly and return Washington to the 2015 nuclear agreement and end sanctions on the country by February 21, after which the Iranian government stance is set to “harden.”

The Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after pulling the US out of an international accord aimed at curtailing Tehran’s nuclear program.

In an interview with the Iranian Hamshahri newspaper, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said recent parliament legislation forces the government to toughen its stance on the US if sanctions are not eased in two weeks, Reuters reported Saturday.

It’s hard to know how much tougher Iran’s stance on the U.S. could be. It has already said it will accept nothing less than a full return by Washington to the JCPOA, with no modifications of that agreement allowed. And it will not itself return to the nuclear deal until after all of those sanctions have been lifted. How could its stance “harden” even more?

In December, the Iranian parliament, led by hardliners, passed legislation that set a two-month deadline for the easing of sanctions.

The phrase “easing of sanctions” misleads. It is not an “easing,” but a complete lifting of American sanctions. That means, among other benefits, that Iran’s oil sales can resume, and Iranian assets frozen in banks abroad can be unfrozen, providing many tens of billions of dollars to the Iranian government, some of which can be spent on funding for its proxies and allies — from the Houthis in Yemen, Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the Alawite-led army in Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon – that will create a “Shia crescent” extending from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

“Time is running out for the Americans, both because of the parliament bill and the election atmosphere that will follow the Iranian New Year,” Zarif said. The Iranian New Year begins March 21.

Zarif also pointed to upcoming presidential elections in Iran coming up in June. If a hardline president is elected it may further jeopardize the deal, he appeared to have suggested in the interview.

What could a “hardline president” elected in June to replace Rouhani do more than what Iran is already doing, with its secret nuclear facility inside a mountain at Fordo now in operation, its enriching of uranium to a level of 20%, with an advanced centrifuge plant already built to replace the one destroyed at Natanz by Mossad’s sabotage, with Iran’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors to visit certain sites? And that new president will still have to deal with the effects of those crippling American sanctions if Iran does not fully commit to observing the limits placed on its nuclear program by the JCPOA.

“The more America procrastinates, the more it will lose … it will appear that Mr Biden’s administration doesn’t want to rid itself of Trump’s failed legacy,” Zarif said in the interview cited by Reuters.

That “failed legacy” of former President Trump managed to bring Iran to its knees, to cut its revenues by 90%, to cut the value of the rial by 80%, and to leave 60 million Iranians, out of a total population of 83 million, living below the poverty line. It was Trump’s relentless campaign of sanctions that has forced Iran to agree to adhere to the JCPOA, after years of violating its rules.

“We don’t need to return to the negotiating table. It’s America that has to find the ticket to come to the table,” he added.

Hollow bravado from Javad Zarif. Iran is desperate to have American sanctions lifted. The rial has lost 80% of its value since 2018. Revenues from the sale of oil have decreased by 90% since 2018. 60 million of Iran’s 83 million live below the poverty line. 40 million of those live in extreme poverty. Zarif puts a brave face on it, but he knows as well as anyone the havoc those American sanctions have wreaked on Iran’s economy.

In January, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Biden has been “very clear” that “if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the [deal], the United States would do the same.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 1 that Iran was currently months away from being able to produce enough material to build a nuclear weapon. And, he said, that time frame could be reduced to “a matter of weeks” if Tehran further violates restrictions it agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Last month, Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5% permitted under the nuclear deal, and a relatively small technical step away from the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran also said it was beginning research into uranium metal, a material that technically has civilian uses but is seen as another likely step toward a nuclear bomb.

Iran insists it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a position repeated last week by Zarif.

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Nations nuclear inspectors found traces of radioactive material at Iranian nuclear sites that could indicate work on nuclear weapons.

Iran is not “seeking to develop nuclear weapons”? Then why has it built cascades of centrifuges whose sole purpose is to enrich uranium? Why did it build its new centrifuge plant at Natanz that replaces one that Mossad agents destroyed in an act of sabotage? Israel discovered in Iran’s nuclear archive, some 100,000 pages of details about Iran’s decades-long attempts, precisely, to “develop nuclear weapons” – an archive that Mossad agents discovered in 2018, seized, and made off with back to Israel, where they not only studied this treasure trove of information, but shared it with other intelligence agencies. Why do Iranian officials repeatedly warn that they will soon be able to “wipe Israel off the map”? Why do IAEA investigators complain about Iran preventing them from visiting certain sites? Why did the IAEA investigators, at the sites that Iran allowed them into, and assured them that no nuclear weapons work was going on, find traces of radioactive material for which the Iranians could provide no explanation? None of this behavior makes sense unless Iran has indeed been seeking to develop nuclear weapons. “War is deceit,” said Muhammad. Iranians are good Muslims.

The report [by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA] cited several unnamed diplomats briefed on the matter, who said the locations in which the material was found contributed to suspicions.

Tehran barred inspectors from accessing those same locations for a number of months last year, it said.

The report did not make clear whether the suspected weapons development was recent or old. The International Atomic Energy Agency and Western intelligence services all believe Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program until 2003, though Tehran denies ever attempting to obtain such weapons.

Iran’s attempts to clandestinely work on nuclear weapons development no longer an issue. The IAEA investigators’ finding radioactive material at known nuclear sites, the closing off of sites to those investigators, either temporarily – for a few months – so that they could be scrubbed clean, or permanently placed off-limits to them, are a clear admission of guilt. The question is whether Iran will truly commit to undoing its nuclear program, or merely pretend to, in which case the main question is who, with what, and how, will destroy that program.

What is most surprising is that the suave diplomat Javad Zarif is engaged in hectoring the Biden Administration, telling Washington that it had best hurry up, it only has “two weeks” to fully rejoin the JCPOA, and after that, Iran will enter a period of electioneering in which candidates will outdo one another in anti-American rhetoric, and the “hardliners” will likely win. Zarif says the same about Iran’s presidential election in June, that a more “hardline” candidate is likely to replace President Rouhani. There is a good-cop bad-cop routine here: Zarif is the “good cop” who only wants to warn the Americans to lift sanctions right now, while sensible people like Rouhani and Zarif himself are still in control. But the Americans had better hurry up, before the Iranian “hardliners” take over Parliament and the Presidency. In practice, the “moderates” want the same thing the “hardliners” do: a complete lifting of American sanctions, after which all parties will return to the JCPOA agreement, just as it was written in 2015 (and implemented at the beginning of 2016), without any of this “lengthening and strengthening” of the agreement that Secretary Blinken has promised, without any mention of ballistic missiles or regional misbehavior by Iran. And most worrisome of all, the sunset clauses will remain. These will lift certain restrictions: the limit placed on Iran of 5,000 first-generation centrifuges will expire in 2025, and limiting Iran to a a stock of just 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium will expire in 2030.

In truth, there is very little difference in Iran between the so-called ‘moderates” like Zarif and the “hardliners.” Both groups support Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the continued attempts to hide evidence of such work from the IAEA investigators. The “moderates” differ only in their tone; they hold out a promise, entirely factitious, of better Iran-U.S. relations once those horribly unfair sanctions are lifted. The real “moderates” in Iran are not in the government; they are in Evin Prison.

Zarif may have been misled by his previous dealings with the endlessly accommodating and eager-to-please John Kerry and the equally pliable, possibly even more miscomprehending Wendy Sherman, who negotiated America’s adhesion to the JCPOA with Zarif in 2015. But by demanding publicly that America at once – “within two weeks” – return to the agreement, Zarif has miscalculated the American reaction. Biden cannot be seen to be yielding to an Iranian ultimatum. Now he is more likely to want to show that he is no pushover, and will likely respond with something like this: “Whoa. Now wait just a minute. We are not rushing into anything with Iran. We need to take time, as Secretary Blinken has said, we need to hear from other parties in the region who will be affected by any agreement we re-enter, including Israel and Arab states in the Gulf. The important thing is a sense of purpose on both sides. We can get this done, but we won’t be given artificial time-tables. It’ll take the time it takes. ”

This is not what Zarif thought he would hear. But he put Biden on the spot, forcing him to be tougher than he would otherwise have been. Zarif should have said nothing publicly, but behind the scenes he could have conveyed to Biden that parliamentary “hardliners” had given the Americans “two months” to rejoin the nuclear deal and as a “moderate,” he, Javad Zarif, hoped the new administration would understand the need for haste. Had he done that, I suspect that Biden would have been as accommodating as all get out.

Fortunately, Zarif misread the situation. The Biden Administration now has to not only seem, but be, tougher than it would have liked, and the world is safer for it. Let’s hope Javad Zarif makes other demands on the Americans in public, the more threatening and non-negotiable, the better. Something sure to get Biden’s dander up, and certain to boomerang.

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