The United States is currently sanctioning foreign companies that had been trying to block Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb. These sanctions are a relic of the Trump era that President Biden can fix without unilaterally disarming U.S. economic pressure on Iran. While Washington and Tehran may soon be sitting at the negotiating table, they are not there yet and both sides are under relentless pressure from legislators to compete rather than collaborate. Unfortunately, there is a rapidly receding window of opportunity to revive the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or both sides risk its collapse.
As Iran is still under Trump-era maximum pressure sanctions, Tehran’s rejection of an early informal meeting with the Biden administration is unsurprising. But both Washington and Tehran are stuck in the diplomatic mud, neither wanting to move first, while tensions mount.
The Biden administration will only provide economic relief after talks begin and plans to lift sanctions in coordination with Iranian steps toward compliance with the JCPOA. Conversely, Tehran wants sanctions relief first. Already, Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent — a small step away from weapons-grade.
As the stand-off continues, there is a heightened risk of losing unprecedented access into Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran’s parliament passed legislation requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to, among other breaches, reduce U.N. nuclear inspector access. To defuse an impending crisis of insight, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency struck a deal that bought a three-month window to let diplomacy have its day. It is indeed an innovative solution that ensures necessary oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, but it is a fact that the IAEA has less access and fewer tools to inspect. The current situation is tenable for a short period of time, but not for the long term. If this agreement collapses, the IAEA and the world lose valuable insight, and the gaps in knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program will grow once again.
To thread the needle, Biden’s team should issue sanctions waivers for nuclear projects mandated by the JCPOA that are so clearly in the U.S. national interest that the Trump administration broke with its scorched-earth Iran policy and allowed these projects until its final months. Re-issuing nuclear waivers is not only a gesture of good faith that could help spur dialogue with Iran, but in some cases, the waivers are a pre-requisite for Iran to return to compliance with the JCPOA.
What are nuclear waivers?
Despite withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and attempting to collapse the deal at the United Nations, the Trump administration was caught in the uncomfortable position of recognizing that aspects of the JCPOA were clearly good for U.S. national security. In November 2018, the Trump administration sanctioned AEOI, effectively blacklisting it with the intent of preventing foreign companies from engaging with Iran’s nuclear scientists.
However, the Trump administration issued waivers to Russian, Chinese, and British companies to work with AEOI on projects designed to contain Iran’s nuclear program. These waivers allowed Russia, for instance, to transfer fuel to the Tehran Research Reactor, which is powered by 20 percent enriched uranium, thus eliminating political cover for Iran to enrich to this level. They also ensured excess heavy water was shipped to Oman and that all spent fuel was shipped out of Iran. Waivers are necessary for Iran to return to compliance with these JCPOA requirements.
The waivers also allowed China to modify the Arak heavy water research reactor under the supervision of the United Kingdom. As originally designed, the Arak reactor posed a significant proliferation threat, so the nuclear deal sought to defuse this issue. According to Colin Kahl, now Biden’s nominee to be the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Arak reactor could have produced enough plutonium from its spent fuel for one or two nuclear weapons per year. Under the new design, the reactor will be limited to half of its original power and it will only use fuel enriched to 3.67 percent, further removing the need for Iran to enrich past this level.
These waivers were routinely issued into the summer of 2020 because, in the words of then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “allowing these activities to continue for the time being will improve ongoing oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear program and make these facilities less susceptible to illicit and illegal nuclear uses.” This decision split President Trump with his most ardent supporters in Congress. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas), and Marco Rubio (Fla.) introduced legislation to end the waivers the Trump administration was issuing.
This concern also revealed the true intent of the nuclear deal’s harshest critics when Senator Graham explained why he eventually decided to support a different plan. “If you want regime change, count me in. But that’s not the policy of the Trump administration,” Graham said. “That may be Cotton’s position, that may be Cruz’s position, but that’s not Trump’s position.”
The blunt truth of Senator Graham’s statement lays bare the intention of Iran hawks from the very beginning. It was never about the specifics of the nuclear deal; it has always been about a continuing policy of regime change. Re-issuing the nuclear waivers may be scorned by Iran hawks, but the waivers are clearly in the United States’ national security interest, if even Pompeo had to grudgingly admit they were a good idea.
All that is required is for the United States to stop sanctioning foreign companies who are trying to contain Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran allows these foreign technicians to return, this would be an easy way to get more eyes on the ground at critical nuclear sites when IAEA oversight has been diminished. The move would also allow key European allies, Russia, and China to return to compliance with their nuclear requirements under the JCPOA, which could put more pressure on Tehran to engage diplomatically with the Biden administration. As time is running short, both Tehran and Washington may need to be flexible with what counts as the “first move.”
The Biden administration should take this interim step toward further diplomatic engagement with Iran to resolve this pressing national security priority. There is no time left to waste.
Samuel M. Hickey is the Paul A. Castleman Policy Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and a research associate at the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland. Hickey's research is focused on the intersection of science and policy in the field of international security.
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.