26 February 2021   Leave a comment

The US and Iran are conducting a very elaborate and complicated diplomatic dance in an effort to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. My own view is that both sides want the agreement to be restored but they are now engaged in negotiations to determine the terms of its renewal. Since former US President Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2017, Iran has been slowly restarting its nuclear program as a way of pressuring the other signatories to the agreement (Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) to convince the US to rejoin the agreement and to ease up on the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Despite the desire of both governments to renew the agreement, both sides also have to deal with hardliners in their countries that do not wish to see the agreement revived.

The negotiations have been complicated by contentious issues that are only peripherally related to the objective of the JCPOA which was simply to create conditions to allow Iran to forgo the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Former President Trump pulled out of the agreement because it did not address the Iranian ballistic missile program nor did it do anything to proscribe Iranian behavior which threatened US allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. President Biden is concerned about those issues as well, but he seems to understand that stopping the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb is the highest priority. For both sides, the issue appears to be establishing the terms of a renewal that would not play into the hands of the forces that oppose the JCPOA.

In many respects, the first steps of the negotiations are the most serious obstacles. Neither side wishes to appear weak but neither do they wish to be provocative. Thus far there has been a diplomatic channel and a military channel in the negotiations. For the US, the strategy has been to distance itself from the close embrace of Israel and Saudi Arabia which was pursued by the Trump Administration. President Biden delayed talking directly with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for over a month and has just today released the intelligence report blaming Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Salman for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. For its part, Iran has been leaning on the European states to disregard the US extraterritorial sanctions on the sale of its oil–the Chinese and the Russians have openly defied those sanctions.

The military track of the negotiations are more complicated. Iran continues to target US facilities in Iraq, but those attacks seem to be deliberately calibrated to avoid US military casualties. The Voice of America describes those attacks:

“In the Feb. 15 attack, rockets hit the U.S. military base housed at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish-run region killing one non-American contractor and injuring a number of American contractors and a U.S. service member. Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later hurting at least one contractor.

“On Monday, rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions.

“Earlier this week, the Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups, denied any role in recent rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.

“Some Western and Iraqi officials say the attacks, often claimed by little-known groups, are being carried out by militants with links to Kata’ib Hezbollah as a way for Iranian allies to harass U.S. forces without being held accountable.”

The US launched an attack against Iranian-backed militia facilities in eastern Syria to respond to these attacks. But this attack seems to be similarly calibrated to avoid extensive casualties. President Biden was criticized by many Democratic politicians and I share these reservations to some extent. We will have to see how these military exchanges unfold. I prefer to think about these exchanges as diplomatic messages and not as a prelude to further attacks, but that perspective is a fragile one. It would be far better for these negotiations to proceed as peacefully as is possible given the constraints on both sides posed by the hardliners.

Posted February 26, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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