Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Biden’s Dance with Iran

President Biden appointing Robert Malley as his special envoy for Iran is a clear sign negotiations with Iran are coming. It is worth noting that Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan on January 29 said that re-establishing the 2015 nuclear agreement is urgent. I worked with Jake in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and he is careful to reflect the thinking of his boss. Malley and Sullivan consider that the first negotiations with Iran must focus on returning to the nuclear agreement. Negotiations about other issues, like Iran’s missile program and its behavior in the region, should come later. Secretary of State Blinken also called for using a return to the agreement as a launching point for negotiating other issues with Iran.

But there is a huge first question: how to return to the agreement? Blinken stated that first Iran must stop all its violations of the deal. That would mean that Iran must reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium, it must stop its advanced centrifuge program and it must stop enriching uranium more than 3.67 percent (it now aims at 20 percent). According to Blinken, the International Atomic Energy Agency must verify these Iranian actions before Washington would cancel the sanctions President Trump reimposed.

Not surprisingly, Teheran insists that Washington take the first step and cancel the Trump actions and also pay compensation for the economic damage American sanctions caused before Teheran returns to compliance with the agreement terms.

It’s impossible to imagine American compensation to Iran. The real question is this: will removing sanctions come first or Iran’s concrete steps to return its nuclear program to the 2015 conditions? Some observers noticed that in Sullivan’s remarks on January 29 he didn’t say that Iran must take the first step.

Before it goes far, Washington will consult with allies in Europe and the Middle East before it decides its strategy. However, there is one plan about the next Iran steps that you can read now on the internet from the International Crisis Group published on January 15. Malley was the director of the organization until January 29 and he worked for them for years before and after his time in the Obama administration. The January 15 report emphasizes the lack of trust between Washington and Teheran worse than the suspicions of 2013-2015 and therefore it recommends a step-by-step agreement in four phases.

In the first phase, Washington and Europe would take confidence-building measures, such as financial aid for Iran from the International Monetary Fund and the Europeans to finance medical and humanitarian imports. Washington in the first phase would remove Iranian negotiators, such as Mohamed Javad Zarif from the American sanctions list. Iran in return would release western prisoners.

The next phase in the spring this year would be negotiations among the 2015 agreement countries about a timetable for Iran to stop its violations of the pact step-by-step in return for the Biden administration removing the Trump sanctions step-by-step. The report mentions the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify Iranian actions. The January 15 report suggests that the European Union in this second phase begin encouraging European companies to do business in Iran.

After all the countries return to their commitments of the 2015 agreement, then Washington and its allies could begin a third phase to talk to the Iranians about some regional issues. Yemen would be the best choice, according to the report.

Finally, the fourth phase would begin after the election of the new Iranian president in June, and the negotiations at that time would begin to cover issues like extending limitations on the Iran nuclear program, Iran’s missile program and its intervention in the region.

The International Crisis Group is not part of the Biden administration, and the decision about negotiation strategy will come from Biden personally. The Republican Party and many Democrats reject completely negotiation with Iran. They demand to continue the maximum pressure campaign against Teheran until it makes concessions on its nuclear program, its missile program and its regional intervention all together.

Leading the rejection camp is Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who will be a candidate in the 2024 presidential election. Cotton warned Biden not to appoint Malley but Biden ignored him. Biden may open a channel to Iran in the next weeks, but there is a big difference between talking and taking concrete steps. If Biden approves financial aid to Iran from the International Monetary Fund and Europe without any Iranian reciprocal steps, he will confront sharp criticisms from both political parties in Congress. All new presidents lose political influence with time, but Biden risks a fast drop in his influence and a risk to his domestic agenda if he appears weak in negotiations with Iran.