WASHINGTON — Many factors are responsible for the moribund prospects of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But perhaps nothing has hindered the Biden administration’s efforts more than President Donald J. Trump’s legacy.
It was, of course, Mr Trump who in 2018 withdrew from the nuclear pact the Obama administration signed with Iran, calling it “the worst deal ever.”
But Mr Trump did more than pull the plug. US officials and analysts say his actions have greatly hampered America’s ability to negotiate with Tehran, which has imposed demands outside of the nuclear deal that President Biden has refused to meet without making concessions.
The original pact restricted Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions that have crushed the country’s economy. After Mr Trump canceled the deal and reintroduced sanctions, Iran also began violating its terms.
With no compromise on a new deal in sight and Iran making steady progress toward nuclear capability, the Biden administration could soon be forced to choose between accepting Iran’s bomb-making capability or taking military action. to prevent it from doing this. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as producing medical isotopes to diagnose and treat disease.
Mr Trump handed Mr Biden an unnecessary nuclear crisis, State Department chief negotiator Robert Malley told senators at a hearing late last month, adding that the chances of salvaging the deal had become “nil.” .
Negotiations in Vienna to restore the deal have been stalled since mid-March. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Monday that Iranian leaders “must decide, and very quickly, whether they want to go ahead with what has been negotiated and which can be completed quickly if Iran chooses to do so.”
This month, after the United States and European allies criticized Iran for failing to cooperate with international inspectors, officials in Tehran doubled down by deactivating and removing some surveillance cameras at its nuclear facilities.
Mr Blinken said Iran’s move was “not encouraging”.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said on Tuesday that Iran had proposed a new plan to the United States, but he did not provide details.
“Iran has never walked away from the negotiating table and believes that negotiations and diplomacy are the best way to reach a good and lasting deal,” he said in Tehran.
A senior government official in Washington, who is close to negotiations, said he was not aware of a new proposal from Tehran, but “of course we remain open” to ideas that could lead to an agreement.
According to several people familiar with the negotiating process that Biden began early last year, Mr Trump’s legacy haunts the negotiations in at least three striking ways.
First, there was what the Iranians call a massive breach of confidence: Mr. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal, despite Iran’s adherence to its terms, confirmed Tehran’s fears about how quickly the United States could change course after an election. .
At the negotiating table in Vienna, the Iranians have demanded guarantees that any successors to Mr Biden will be prevented from undoing the deal.
In late February, 250 of the 290 Iranian parliamentarians signed a letter to the Iranian president urging him to “learn a lesson from past experience” by “not entering into an agreement without first obtaining the necessary guarantees”.
Biden administration officials have explained that this is not possible, given the nature of the US democratic system. (Nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran began under President George W. Bush and were completed in the 2015 agreement in a pledge by President Barack Obama. The agreement was not ratified as a treaty by the US Senate.)
The Iranians have a related concern: Foreign companies may be reluctant to invest in Iran if they believe US sanctions will fall again after the next presidential election.
Mr Trump created a second major hurdle to restoring the deal by piling up about 1,500 new sanctions against Iran. Iran has pushed for those sanctions to be rolled back — no more than Trump’s 2019 designation of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. Past administrations have condemned the Revolutionary Guard, which oversees Iranian military proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen and aided insurgents in Iraq who have killed Americans. But they were wary of identifying an arm of a foreign government as a terrorist group.
Iranian negotiators have said that in order to negotiate a renewed nuclear deal, Mr Biden must drop the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist label. But Mr Biden has refused without Iran making other concessions first – and Mr Blinken described the group as a terror organization as late as April.
Some analysts call the case largely symbolic, but powerful. The United States had already heavily sanctioned the Revolutionary Guards and the group’s commanders, and the long-term consequences of the sentences were expected to affect Iran’s economy. Still, in May, the US Senate passed a non-binding resolution by a vote of 62 to 33, prohibiting Mr Biden from removing the designation. Some key Democrats supported the move, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wrote a message of approval on Twitter after Mr Biden informed him that the designation would remain.
The senior administration official said the United States was open to lifting the terrorism designation, but only if Iran was willing to offer new assurances about security concerns related to the Revolutionary Guards Corps. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private negotiations, would not be more specific, except to say that Iran had refused to relinquish any land.
People familiar with the talks point to a third, logistical way in which Mr. Trump’s legacy looms: Iranian officials have refused to speak directly with US officials since Mr. Trump pulled out of the deal. (Mr. Trump infuriated Iran by ordering the assassination of a senior Iranian military commander, Qassim Suleimani, in 2020.)
During the talks in Vienna, Mr. Malley with Iranian negotiators by sending messages through European intermediaries from a hotel across the street. This got bogged down in the process and sometimes led to time-consuming misunderstandings.
Trump administration officials and their associates expected such complications, to varying degrees, as they developed policies intended, in part, to make future negotiations difficult without dramatic changes in Iran’s behavior.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that is taking a hard line against the Iranian government, was an outside architect of what he described in 2019 as a “wall” of Trump administration sanctions. against Iran, including the Revolutionary Guards’ designation as a terrorist.
“I’m glad the sanctions wall has held up in principle, because it should hold,” Mr Dubowitz, who strongly opposed the nuclear deal, said Monday. “Iran should not receive sanctions relief unless it stops the underlying behavior that led to the sanctions in the first place.”
Biden administration officials say Mr Trump made maximum demands on Iran that were unrealistic even given the intense economic pressure Mr Trump was exerting on Tehran.
The Trump administration “predicted that Iran would not restart its nuclear program and that Iran would come to negotiate our other concerns,” Malley said during the Senate hearing. “I wish they had been right. Unfortunately, they were proven wrong on all counts.”
Iran began to increase its nuclear program after Mr Trump withdrew from the deal. But Mr Dubowitz said it was accelerating its uranium enrichment to more dangerous levels and taking other threatening steps after Mr Biden made it clear he was eager to return to the 2015 agreement.
Dennis Ross, a Middle East negotiator who has worked for several presidents, said both sides still had incentives to compromise.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, needs sanctions relief for his economy. As for Mr Biden, Mr Ross said “he has no other way at the moment to restrict Iran’s nuclear program – and it is moving forward at the moment” with less oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mr Ross acknowledged that a nuclear deal that had limited support in Congress even in 2015 looks less attractive today, as Iran has acquired more atomic know-how and the key “sunset clauses” of the agreement will expire in a few years. But he said Mr Biden may still want to go back to the deal “not because he loves it so much, but because the alternative is so bad.”
“Otherwise,” he said, “the Iranians can just carry on.”
Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.