There are quite a few people in the Biden administration, and particularly in the State Department, who can count to twenty without even taking their shoes off. So they must have realised that there was going to be an election in Iran next Friday (18 June).
They would even know that this time the election has been rigged so that the ‘hard-liners’ are bound to win it.
Joe Biden therefore only had five months to reverse Donald Trump’s deliberate wrecking of the 2015 treaty that prevented Iran from working on nuclear weapons. After the June election, the wreckers would be in power in Tehran, and they would sabotage the talks.
So why didn’t Blinken’s people move faster?
It was the Trump administration that unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA treaty (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and slapped crippling economic sanctions on Iran in 2018. Since then, Iran has repeatedly said that if the US just cancelled Trump’s sanctions and rejoined the treaty, all would be well. Now it’s probably too late.
All the other parties to the treaty (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) agreed that Iran was not violating it, but none of them wanted to get into a showdown with Trump by breaking US sanctions. So when Trump tightened the sanctions further in May 2019, crushing Iran’s remaining oil exports, Tehran started going beyond the treaty limits – a little bit.
It began to enrich its uranium beyond the treaty limit of 3.67% (far below weapons-grade). It allowed inspections to continue, it kept nothing secret, but every three or six months it moved the enrichment up another notch to give the others an incentive to sort their American problem out.
When Trump lost the 2020 election and Biden replaced him in the White House last January, it became possible to repair all the damage. However, the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, then announced that Iran must roll back all its post-2019 changes BEFORE the US lifts its sanctions.
The question of who goes first is childish if there is trust, but America has forfeited the right to demand that Iran trust it. Biden and Blinken must know that demanding Iran go first dooms the negotiations, and that a rigged election in Iran will shortly close the door on the deal for good. So they must have decided that this is the least bad outcome (for them).
They can’t say so publicly: better to delay the negotiations and let a new Iranian government break them off. And it will break them off, because Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has arranged for his faithful supporter Ebrahim Raisi to win the presidency by banning more open-minded candidates from running at all.
Both men are fiercely anti-Western conservatives, but they wouldn’t have got away with rigging the election like this four years ago, when the treaty was new and popular hopes were still high in Iran. It was Trump’s renewed sanctions killed those hopes.
Biden may be wrong to let the JCPOA treaty die. An immediate end to US sanctions and a quick roll-back of Iran’s changes might have been done the trick. Even a new hard-line government in Iran would have found it hard to unpick that sort of done deal.
But it would have been a gamble, and Biden seems to have decided that he couldn’t afford to risk his political capital that way. It will be years before we know if this was a fatal mistake (and who it was fatal for).