Signs of pragmatism in long-troubled relationship
The Biden administration’s approach to Iran reflects a hard-headed realism necessary for the managed-not-solved nature of the Iranian challenge.
And it may be working.
Five Americans unjustly detained in Iran are expected to be released within weeks. There are reports that Iran is keeping its uranium enrichment below 60%, a red line for weaponization, and Iran has so far refrained from providing ballistic missiles to Russia. An understanding, if not an "agreement," seems to be taking shape, in which Iran would adhere to constraints on its nuclear program under IAEA supervision, while setting new mechanisms for de-escalation. The United States did not oppose a China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Iranian-Saudi relations are "on the right track" during a visit to Riyadh this week where he met his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
This is all fragile and uncertain, and some may claim that it is cold comfort given Iran’s record. But let’s remember that President Joe Biden inherited a crisis with Iran in January 2021. His predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, upending a hard-earned international consensus about Iran's nuclear program. In return for sanctions relief, Iran had kept its uranium enrichment program in check, under tight international constraints. After May 2018, Iran blew by JCPOA restrictions on enrichment, threatening a nuclear breakout, and the window for a potential bomb shrank from years to months.
After spending his first two years trying to reconstruct the JCPOA, Biden has since shifted course to a robust mix of diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently explained. The new approach depends on assertive and nimble diplomacy, including via trusted intermediaries, such as Qatar and Oman, as well as a ramped-up regional military deterrent in the Persian Gulf, as Jared Szuba reports.
By avoiding an "agreement," the Biden administration wants to avoid a congressionally mandated review of a new Iran nuclear deal. Any hint of diplomacy with Iran is a tough if not impossible political sell in Washington, especially with elections in 2024.
There is no head-spinning turnaround on the horizon, and the Iranian government seems well entrenched, even if shaken by the protests last year. There may be a long fuse of discontent, but US policymakers aren’t counting on regime change.
Managed-not-solved means tough and least-bad options and choices, requiring diplomatic and military vigilance.
Biden should get a deserved boost when the five detained Americans are returned, although Republican and other critics are already faulting the administration for a "ransom payment" to Iran in doing so, by allowing Iran access to its funds in South Korea that had been frozen as a result of US sanctions, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reports.
Key to Biden’s Iran policy is Washington’s never-better coordination with Israel, despite friction elsewhere in the relationship, and the reset in US-Saudi ties. The urgency the administration is giving Israeli-Saudi normalization has as much or more to do with Iran as it does with the Israel-Palestine conflict. A Saudi-Israeli agreement, while still a long shot, is worth the push. It would rival only the Israel-Egypt peace in its potential impact on regional security.
Four dates to watch
The overdue return of the five unjustly detained Americans, in return for the transfer of Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks, will be the key short-term bellwether of a change in US-Iran relations.
There will be further benchmarks in coming weeks as well; here are four we will be watching:
• Sept. 11: Iran will be on the agenda at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in Vienna Sept. 11-15. The IAEA oversees Iran’s nuclear program. As we have written here, Iran has sought to normalize its civilian nuclear program, with none other than Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directing his nuclear teams to cooperate with the IAEA on safeguards, but no more than that. The IAEA report will indicate whether there has indeed been progress on safeguards, and if uranium enrichment is holding (and perhaps even diluted, as has been reported) below 60%.
• Sept. 16: The one-year anniversary of the death in custody of 22-year old Mahsa Amini for a hijab violation could spark a new round of domestic protests, as well as international and media scrutiny of Iran’s crackdown on dissent and overall human rights record. Perhaps trying to pre-empt unrest, Iran this week arrested at least 12 female activists.
• Sept. 19: Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi is again expected to lead the Iranian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meetings.
• Oct. 18: This may be the most consequential date here. "Transition day," per the JCPOA, is when the UN is slated to lift restrictions on Iran’s research, development and production of ballistic missiles, and its import and export of missile- and drone-related technology. Iran, in return, is supposed to submit the "additional protocol," which allows the IAEA more intrusive inspection and monitoring of its nuclear programs, to its parliament for ratification. As we wrote earlier this month, neither is going to happen, or at least not as envisaged. The United States again warned Iran this week not to provide ballistic missiles to Russia, which it has so far not done. The European Union has said that it will keep missile-related sanctions on Iran in place, and may want to avoid a showdown. The United States, no longer a party to the JCPOA, may want its European partners to keep the heat on Iran over Ukraine to force further concessions on Iranian support for Russia.