According to the Biden administration, significant progress is being made at nuclear talks in Vienna to bring the United States back into the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). Biden officials claim there will be a “compliance for compliance” agreement under which the United States will rejoin the deal and drop sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. In exchange, Iran will fully meet its obligations under the JCPOA.
It may seem that Biden is on the brink of a major achievement, but when diplomatic agreements are the goal—rather than a tool to address a threat—it is not necessarily a victory. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the diplomatic process in Vienna. These are “indirect” talks because Iran refuses to allow its diplomats to meet personally with American diplomats. Under this process, Iranian and American diplomats are in different hotels and European diplomats carry proposals between the two delegations.
The Iranians refused to directly negotiate with the United States. This was an enormous snub that gave Tehran a clear advantage in the nuclear talks since it proves Biden wants a deal more than Iranian leaders do. They can now leverage the talks themselves as a mechanism to highlight American weakness and supposed despair, and to project their own strength.
Making this situation worse, Iranian diplomats are coordinating their position with other JCPOA party diplomats—France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, and Russia—before Iran’s offers are presented to U.S. diplomats. This allows China and Russa to have a say over Iran’s terms for the U.S. return to the nuclear deal. Those most affected by Iran’s ambitions, however, including Israel and Iran’s Gulf state neighbors appear to be sidelined entirely, with the United States formally saying that nothing Israel would say at this point will change its position.
There also is a great deal of deceit concerning exactly what the United States and Iran are bargaining for.
Both nations agree that the United States must lift sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump and Iran is supposed to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal.
Iran wants all U.S. sanctions dropped, including non-nuclear sanctions. Biden officials initially said they would not lift non-nuclear sanctions, although they have apparently encouraged allies, such as South Korea, to lift sanctions. However, they reportedly are considering lifting a wide array of U.S. sanctions, including those on Iran’s support of terrorism, missile development, and human rights. Biden officials have defended these possible concessions by accusing the Trump administration—without offering proof—of imposing certain sanctions on Iran to make it difficult for a future American president to rejoin the JCPOA.
It still gets worse. Late last week, Biden’s diplomats proposed “economic incentives” to Iran. So, in addition to offering Iran a huge financial windfall by ending U.S sanctions, the Biden administration apparently also plans to pay Tehran to comply with the JCPOA. And over the weekend, Iran claimed the United States offered a prisoner swap as part of a new agreement, although Biden officials denied this.
This looks like the beginnings of the same corrupt deal the Obama administration agreed to when it secretly flew planeloads of cash worth $1.7 billion to Iran in January 2016 to free five innocent Americans being held prisoner in Iran. In exchange, the United States released 14 Iranians convicted of illegally transferring arms or military technology to Iran. Except this time, the numbers appear to be even higher.
You can be sure North Korea is watching this closely and is calculating how much it will demand in appeasement from the Biden administration to not conduct more nuclear and missile tests.
There has been disagreement on the sequencing of the United States dropping sanctions and Iran resuming compliance with its JCPOA commitments. Iran insists the United States must first drop all sanctions before it takes action and has rejected U.S. proposals for a phased approach. This issue appears to be moving in Iran’s direction.
Biden officials justify lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran by President Trump because they claim Tehran will in exchange come into full compliance with the JCPOA. They also claim that after a so-called “compliance for compliance” deal with Iran, the United States will later engage Iran to negotiate a better and longer-lasting nuclear agreement.
None of this is going to happen.
First of all, Iran has been adamant that it will never agree to renegotiate the JCPOA or agree to a follow-on agreement. Biden officials recognize this which is why fixing the nuclear deal’s serious flaws, such as weak verification and failure to address Iran’s missile program, is not on the table at the Vienna nuclear talks.
A far more serious issue is that Biden officials are only calling on Iran to come into partial compliance with the JCPOA by reversing a series of overt violations of the nuclear deal in 2019 and 2020 such as violating caps on the amount and purity of enriched uranium. Although these violations are serious, Tehran openly committed them to blackmail the international community to pressure the United States to rejoin the JCPOA.
Biden officials don’t want to discuss a large number of other serious Iranian JCPOA violations because they contradict their narrative that the nuclear agreement was working, and Iran was in full compliance until President Trump withdrew from it in 2018.
This is clearly untrue. German intelligence has produced many reports in recent years of Iran secretly trying to acquire nuclear weapons technology in violation of the JCPOA. The Dutch and Swedish intelligence agencies just released similar reports.
For years, JCPOA defenders successfully refuted or discredited such evidence of Iranian cheating on the nuclear deal. This became impossible in 2018 after Israeli intelligence stole a huge cache of documents on Iran’s secret nuclear-weapons program that became known as the Iran Nuclear Archive. These documents indicated that Iran lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the international community about its nuclear program and that nuclear weapons-related work was still being conducted at locations Iran had failed to declare to the IAEA.
Over the last year, Iran reluctantly gave in to pressure by the Trump administration, European states, and the IAEA to allow inspections of some of these undeclared nuclear weapon sites. Even though Iran razed buildings on these sites and tried to remove physical evidence of covert nuclear weapons work, IAEA inspectors still found nuclear traces confirming this work took place in violation of the JCPOA.
But the Biden administration is not interested in pressuring Iran to truly come into compliance with the JCPOA. It doesn’t care about fixing the deal’s serious flaws. It is not demanding answers from Tehran on recent evidence of sites where covert nuclear weapon work is ongoing. President Biden is so obsessed with getting a “photo op agreement” reversing President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA that he is prepared to make any concession and overlook any Iranian violation of the agreement.
As a result, the Vienna nuclear talks are a sham that Iran knows it will win. The implications of Biden’s capitulation to Iran will convey American weakness to the world and have dire consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond.
Fred Fleitz is President of the Center for Security Policy. He previously served as National Security Council Chief of staff, CIA analyst and as a member of the House Intelligence Committee staff.