As Tehran prepares to ban short notice inspections of its nuclear sites in what will be its most egregious violation of the Iran nuclear deal to date, behind the scenes Biden administration officials are making clear they are determined not to succumb to pressure to make imminent concessions or return too quickly to the agreement, a senior administration official and a European diplomat familiar with the ongoing discussions told CNN.
The administration has said it intends to keep the door open for diplomacy, despite the ban which was announced by Iran’s parliament at the end of last year and is expected to be implemented next week.
The likely breach presents another complicating factor in the ongoing impasse between Washington and Tehran — both of whom have insisted that the other move first; another hurdle for the Biden administration’s desire to return to the deal and for the nations hoping to salvage the landmark agreement before it is irreparably damaged.
Ahead of that move, which Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) said will take effect on February 23, the United States and the E3 — Germany, France, and the United Kingdom — are having “intense discussions” about what to do, said a European diplomat familiar with the discussions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually with his E3 counterparts Thursday for the second time in as many weeks.
The German Foreign Office said in a tweet Thursday that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian “welcome readiness of new US administration to discuss #Iran. E3 will continue to aim at preserving the #JCPoA and to explore all options in this regard. E3 urge Iran not to undermine the agreement any further.”
Iran’s likely move away from its obligations under the Additional Protocol of the deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), “is a very significant escalation,” according to Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group.
“This is Iran playing hardball with Biden. Restricting inspectors’ access is something the Iranians did not do during the Trump administration and is essentially the last remaining active part of the JCPOA,” he told CNN.
Former officials had floated the possibility that the administration could make some sort of goodwill gesture to deter Iran from making the step, which is required under a law passed by Tehran’s parliament in December. However, the senior administration official told CNN that this is not expected to happen.
The official said the Biden administration may send a signal in the coming days that they are prepared to re-enter a serious process with Iran and the members of the JCPOA, but that the details of what that process looks like and how to jumpstart it are still being fleshed out.
‘Path for diplomacy’ remains open
At a press briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted that this latest move– and Iran’s other violations to date — are reversible.
“Iran should reverse these steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances on which not only the United States, not only our allies and partners in the region, but the entire world relies,” he said. “Iran should provide full and timely cooperation with the IAEA.”
However, Price said that “the path for diplomacy remains there. We hope to be able to pursue it together with our allies and partners.”
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi “will visit Tehran on Saturday for discussions with senior Iranian officials in order to find a mutually agreeable solution for the IAEA to continue essential verification activities in the country,” a spokesperson for the organization said. “The Director General last week offered to travel to Iran in view of its decision to stop implementing voluntary transparency measures under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as of 23 February, including the Additional Protocol, which would have a serious impact on the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities in the country.”
A sense of urgency is growing among the Europeans, who privately point out that the world finds itself in this position because the US pulled out of the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump. But for now they understand the delicate predicament.
“Biden and Blinken cannot give the impression that blackmail works for the US,” the European diplomat said, pointing out that the US will need to get something from Iran if they are going to take small steps to deescalate. “They also need a tangible reward for Congress.”
As part of the ongoing US discussions with their counterparts they have discussed steps both the US and Iran could take to deescalate the tensions and begin a process towards bringing both sides back into the deal, this diplomat said, but “the challenge is to put together elements of de-escalation.”
“What would the US do, A-B-C, and what would Iran do, A-B-C,” they said, describing the ongoing conversations as encouraging because “there is a readiness to put ideas on the table.”
The diplomat also noted the broader regional developments, like the Biden administration’s reversal of a foreign terrorist organization designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran.
“The Houthi designation decision was made on its own merits, but it creates a more positive atmosphere,” they said, adding that the US decision to pull back support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen had a similar effect. “It may make the Iranians more interested in cooperating.”
Price said Wednesday that “it has not been our intent, nor has it been our strategy, to engage on the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program through the context of Yemen. That is not at all how we see it.
Next steps remain unclear
Nonetheless, the sequencing and timing of next steps remain unclear.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that words are not enough and demanded that the Biden administration take action if they want to revive the nuclear deal. The Biden administration has repeatedly said Iran must return to full compliance first, but in an NPR interview this week Blinken did not count out direct diplomacy with Tehran down the road.
“At some point, presumably, if there’s going to be any engagement on this, that would have to require diplomacy. That’s what we’re in the business of,” Blinken said.
Rome of the Eurasia Group told CNN that “the issue that the two sides are getting caught up on is who goes first, which is a bit a sideshow.”
“What needs to happen is they need to sit down and negotiate re-entry into the deal. You are not going to move forward in a sustainable way without agreements from both sides about what steps they will take,” he said. “That could get the process going because the ball would then be in Iran’s court.”
Price would not comment on the Biden administration’s view on the possibility of for a gradual return to compliance during the State Department briefing on Wednesday. Earlier this month Iran’s Foreign Minister suggested the European Union’s foreign policy chief could choreograph the moves made by the US and Iran to overcome to current stalemate.
In the meantime, some experts have expressed concerns that Iran may go too far and push the US and Europeans to the point of no return.
“I think that these steps are clearly a pressure campaign designed to spur the United States to move on sanctions relief then return to the deal. I am concerned, though, that Iran is overplaying its hand with these violations,” said Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association. “And if Iran takes these steps, reducing inspections for instance will create a gap on monitoring on certain activities that would be difficult to reconstitute. It’s not clear that you know the Europeans are going to wait forever in light of these violations and they may feel moved to respond.”