The cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal has been unstuck, but Team Biden’s Middle East policy is still bogged down, going nowhere. In a best case scenario, we can look forward to months of fruitless negotiations with Iran that finally produce … nothing.
Biden ran for the presidency declaring he would reenter the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It is now clear that he had no plan on how to do that.
Instead, we’ve had more than two months of “shuttle diplomacy” that looked like a game of diplomatic blind man’s bluff. Now, we’re told, there’s been a breakthrough: the Biden team will meet for “indirect talks” with Iran in Vienna Tuesday.
Here is why this is not progress.
While both Washington and Tehran have declared their willingness to revive U.S. participation in the agreement, they are very far apart. Biden officials have called for a follow-on agreement to “lengthen and strengthen” the flawed JCPOA. Iran has shown zero interest in that proposal.
Further, Tehran wants all the U.S. sanctions lifted before they will take steps to come back into compliance with the agreement. Tehran maintains that no negotiations are needed for the U.S. to rejoin. Washington should just lift sanctions, after which Iran will stop violating the agreement.
But if the U.S. did agree to those terms, it would amount to a total capitulation and an embarrassing loss of face.
This leaves the administration little negotiating room. Tehran has already rejected its offer for a partial relief of sanctions as a “sweetener.” Nor would even partial relief be widely popular in the U.S. Indeed, giving away something for nothing would undermine Washington’s bargaining leverage and only heighten suspicion – domestic as well as foreign – that Biden is weak.
Finally, “indirect talks” means bringing other countries into the negotiation process. This also only weakens Washington’s hand as those other parties – Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – all favor a quick return to the JCPOA, with no corrective changes.
Here is what is likely to happen.
After months of talks, the Biden team will likely find itself right where it is now: facing a Hobson’s choice of just giving in to Tehran or sticking with the current course of sanctioning Iran for noncompliance.
Why waste time trying to placate the murderous, corrupt authoritarian regime in Tehran?
Either way, Iran will remain a threshold nuclear power because, in the end, all the Iran deal accomplished was dismantling prior sanctions on Iran but not Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. That is a reality the Biden team cannot fix.
While Biden’s diplomats burn a lot of frequent flyer miles shuttling back and forth to Vienna on what promises to be the most disastrous exercise in toothless diplomacy since the 1938 Munich agreement, the administration will be wasting several months that could have been better used building up an alliance against Iran, gutting the regime’s surrogates, and shifting the balance of power against Tehran.
Instead, Washington’s friends and allies in the Middle East will be left twisting in the hot desert winds wondering which way Washington will fail. Some may compensate by moving closer to China and Russia, whose influence will surely not make the region any more stable.
Team Biden would be smart to just cut loose of the failed Iran deal before it does even more damage to American interests and the peace and stability in the region. Why waste time trying to placate the murderous, corrupt authoritarian regime in Tehran? There is, after all, so much more that the U.S. can and should be doing in the region.
Washington could redouble efforts on Israel-Arab cooperation. It should also ramp up efforts to support a stable Jordan, recently rocked by a coup attempt.
Meanwhile, the U.S. should escalate pressure to isolate and punish Iran. There should not even be a discussion of sanctions relief until Iran has stopped proxy attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and deescalated its uranium enrichment.
Finally, the U.S. should insist on nothing less than direct talks with Iran, only for the express purpose of crafting a real deal that would denuclearize Iran.