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Joe Biden’s wishful thinking will wreck any chance of a deal between Washington and Tehran

Almost eight months into its term, this US administration still needs to figure out what it wants in Iran – and to realise what it can realistically achieve

Borzou Daragahi
Sunday 12 September 2021 12:09 BST
Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi rushed to Tehran on Sunday to try and hammer out a deal and avoid a divisive debate in Vienna this week
Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi rushed to Tehran on Sunday to try and hammer out a deal and avoid a divisive debate in Vienna this week (AFP/Getty)

Even as it nurses political wounds caused by its bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration of US president Joe Biden is facing another potential crisis in southwest Asia – Iran’s nuclear programme.

There are parallels between Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear programme, as well as what appears to be strain in a US foreign policy that is based more on fantasies and illusions of grandeur than cold reality. Wishful thinking by war planners lulled the US into a false belief that the Kabul government propped up by the US would hold off the Taliban, at least for a while. And wishful thinking got the Biden administration into the current impasse with Iran.

This week, the board of governors of the world’s atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is convening in Vienna and deciding on whether to censure Iran for not granting inspectors access to recordings of activities at its nuclear facilities.

Iran has warned that any censure could trigger an end to talks to resurrect the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the painstakingly negotiated deal that was meant to put curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme. Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA, rushed to Tehran for meetings on Sunday in a last-ditch effort to hammer out a deal and avoid a divisive debate in Vienna this week. The two sides agreed to at least allow IAEA technicians to continue maintaining the surveillance equipment, even if the recordings remain inaccessible for now.

While Iran deserves a measure of the blame for resurrecting a matter that diplomats spent more than a dozen years putting to rest, it is the US that is overwhelmingly responsible for the current crisis. The administration of Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” sanctions and bullying to force Iran back to the table to try and strike a “better deal”, defying the warnings of anyone who knew anything about Iran – including the leaders of America’s mosted trusted and steadfast allies such as France, the UK and Germany – that it wouldn’t work.

Unsurprisingly, a scheme hatched by the dregs of Washington’s think tank constellation utterly failed to bring Iran to heel. It instead prompted Tehran to step up its nuclear programme and its provocative manoeuvres in the Middle East.

Biden campaigned on a promise to restore the JCPOA. When he took office on 20 January he could have easily lifted some of the Trump sanctions as a unilateral gesture of goodwill, giving Iran a deadline of 30 or even 60 days to get back into compliance. But magical thinking took hold. The administration was apparently seduced by the fantasy that Iran was desperate for a deal, and that the Americans could use the “leverage” created by the sanctions to pressure Iran into the “better deal” that Trump failed to get, or at least a commitment by Tehran for “follow-on” talks focused on Iran’s missile programme and support for armed groups in the Middle East.

In truth, the sanctions, which continue today and prompted the Iranians to reduce inspector access to its nuclear facilities, are not leverage but diplomatic poison. The sanctions prevent any reduction in tensions. They sow mistrust between Europeans who say they are forced to abide by them. They make the job of Iranian negotiators seeking to sell hardliners back home on a deal more difficult.

In addition, Iran has weathered the sanctions. Its economy isn’t thriving, but a year and a half into a global pandemic, whose is? Still, Iran’s oil exports are rising, and its steel production has grown at a faster clip than China so far this year. Construction of new ports, railways and energy facilities are proceeding, according to a report by Bloomberg.

Iran tests new missile

The US administration was warned repeatedly that time was running out to restore the deal. Soon the Iranian elections would take place, and a more intransigent team would take over in Tehran. “The window of opportunity is closing fast on an Iran nuclear deal,” said a piece on CNN’s website, published 7 April. “Delay will only weaken Biden’s hand, risking a total collapse of the 2015 agreement,” the scholar Vali Nasr wrote on 2 March in the journal Foreign Affairs. “Iran could follow through on threats to increase its uranium enrichment and accelerate its nuclear weapons programmes.”

After precious weeks were lost, indirect talks between the US and Iran continued in Vienna until June, when Iranians recessed for elections that saw the conclusion of the eight-year administration of the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani and the rise of hardline president Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn into office last month.

Iranians have said cheekily that their administration needs some weeks to settle in before resuming talks, echoing the Biden team’s explanations for why it was taking its sweet time earlier this year.

But almost eight months into its term, the US administration still needs to figure out what it wants, and to realise what it can realistically achieve. It won’t be able to appease Republicans and hawks on Capitol Hill by taking a tough stance on Iran while at the same time restoring the deal. It won’t be able to cool down tensions in the Middle East and make its coveted pivot towards Asia and other global matters while warning in the presence of the new Israeli prime minister that “we’re ready to turn to other options” if diplomacy fails with Iran.

Perhaps the Biden team believes that without the toxicity of Trump, Washington can again rally world powers across ideological lines against Iran as President Barack Obama did in 2010. That’s when the UN Security Council unanimously adopted tough sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

But that is another Washington fantasy. Those tough 2010 sanctions came at a time when Vladimir Putin of Russia had taken a step back for four years and allowed his sidekick Dmitry Medvedev to hold the presidency, and before the hardline Xi Jinping assumed the presidency of China. Putin and Xi have no interest in punishing Iran, which is a trading partner as well as a welcome thorn in the side of their rivals in America and Europe.

Russia’s envoy to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, clarified the matter and sought to dispel any wishful thinking about getting the anti-Iran coalition back together. “If a draft resolution on Iran is tabled in the IAEA Board of Governors, Russia will vote against,” he wrote in a tweet on Friday. “There should be no illusion.”

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