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Here’s an easy way Biden can jump start diplomacy with Iran

Biden can waive sanctions on foreign companies working to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

Analysis | Middle East

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. 

Photo: Vladimir Mulder via
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