In the protracted effort to see who will blink first between Tehran and the Biden administration, Thursday’s strikes on Iranian-backed militia in Syria are but a tiny insect floating into both their gazes. It’s not going to change much, but is a reminder they may need to close their eyes eventually.
Both US President Joe Biden and Iran’s leadership would prefer a world with a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal – than one without. It’s just getting there that is proving hard. The direction of travel is obvious, but the traffic lights are flickering red, and bomb craters have now been placed in the way.
The strikes near Abu Kamal in Syria are a small signal that the Biden administration is not gun-shy, and that attacks on US personnel have consequences. But they were about as minimally lethal as they could be.
Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that while it was unrealistic the US and Iran would stop competing for regional influence, “it is reasonable to expect them to keep those isolated from the JCPOA track which is in their mutual interest.”
The mutual interests are clear. The nuclear deal is the easiest way to realize the US’ sworn intention to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And while Iran is vocal about how it is weathering sanctions as best as it can, it is abundantly clear their economy and Covid-19 response would be massively better off with their alleviation.
Biden has surrounded himself with Iran experts – his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA head nominee Bill Burns are steeped in the original 2015 deal’s creation. The sole and small risk in this pedigreed team is that they underestimate the damage the last four years of Trump has done to faith in careful American diplomacy.
Yet Biden seems relatively relaxed about the breathless timetable that Iran’s parliament and hard-liners have set for the deal to be renewed by late February. This has seen Iran’s enrichment rise to 20% (with the added threat of a jump to 60% from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei).
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections have also been curtailed, although they retain enough functionality to keep the UN inspectors happy. Iran even threw into the mix its unexpected production of uranium metal – something that has civil uses. But, as David Albright from the Institute for Science and International Security, told me at the time of the announcement, this move “can be symbolic of weapons. It’s this kind of march that they are on to scare people.”
“Clearly Iran wants to bolster their leverage. And I think they are overplaying their hand.”
Geranmayeh sees Iran’s escalatory moves as “very deliberate and calculated. There is a lot more Iran can do to reach back the levels of nuclear activity in 2013 but has held back from doing so.”
If we are seeing carefully choreographed moves, albeit to differently timed music, what comes next? The EU has suggested informal meetings with the US in attendance to try to get diplomacy moving a little more quietly and quickly. Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Crisis Group, said that proposal has put the Iranians “in a bind.”
Attending without any of the sanctions relief they crave “could be interpreted as evidence of their desperation in Washington,” he said, “and if they don’t, they might be perceived internationally as the inflexible party at fault.”
Vaez was “cautiously optimistic” the meeting would happen, and Geranmayeh echoed a broad consensus that hardliners looking to derail diplomacy ahead of Iran’s presidential elections in June had been “marginalized.”
“So far, it seems the Biden administration is showing less flexibility to climb down from its initial negotiating position that Iran has to move first in reversing its nuclear activities, whereas Iran has left the door open to a synchronised process,” he said.
Vaez said the trouble might come later, when Biden’s team makes good on its desire to expand the JCPOA – already old, with only about four years until some of its sunset clauses come into effect – into something longer lasting and broader in reach. “Tinkering” with the deal, said Vaez, “let alone fundamentally altering [its] terms … on the theory that it has more leverage than the other would be a dangerous gambit.”
Thursday’s strikes on the Iraqi-Syrian border don’t present an existential threat to diplomacy with Iran. The nuclear deal was designed to deal simply with the risk of Iran getting the bomb – and not its broad vying for regional influence and other conventional weapons programs.
Yet they do show the region’s habit of unpredictability, and how that can endanger pathways for diplomacy that seem assured and obvious, but can be derailed by frayed tempers and needling, escalatory retaliations.
A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Ali Vaez is an adviser to Biden. This has been corrected.