Iran Talks Stall: Does America Even Believe in Diplomacy Anymore?

Joe Biden promised that he would be the president of diplomacy. He promised that, after the turmoil of the bellicose Trump years, he would usher in the age of "relentless diplomacy."

But the US has been absent from negotiations on the war in Ukraine and Secretary of State Antony Blinken hasn’t spoken to his Russian counterpart once since it began. There has been only a weak whisper of diplomacy to Cuba, Juan Guaidó is still the deflated US recognized and backed president of Venezuela and no one seems to remember North Korea.

The resuscitation and survival of the Iran nuclear deal has reached the critical moment. Blinken has recently said that it is still possible to come to an understanding that could pave the way for a nuclear deal.

But over a year into Biden’s presidency, there is still no nuclear deal with Iran. Blinken has admitted that the Trump administration’s "decision to pull out of the agreement was a disastrous mistake.” Iran represented the possibility of an easy, early victory for Biden in the new age of relentless diplomacy. But, instead of acting quickly and early to return the US to compliance and save the JCPOA nuclear agreement, Biden hesitated, increased sanctions instead of snapping back to compliance and refused to guarantee that the US wouldn’t break its promise again.

Now, as a possible agreement seemed to be visible on a hazy horizon, indirect negotiations – the US still has not talked directly to Iran, though Iran has called for a "face-to-face meeting . . . as soon as possible – have been in a coma for six weeks. Europe is imploring the US to engage, complete the negotiations and return to compliance with the JCPOA nuclear agreement. An open letter signed by over forty influential European officials, including former foreign ministers form nine nations, the former prime ministers of Sweden and Norway, former IAEA director-general Hans Blix and former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, has implored the US to "swiftly show decisive leadership and requisite flexibility to resolve the remaining issues of political (not nuclear) disagreement with Tehran."

The letter expresses "growing concern" that with "a final text [that] is essentially ready and on the table, . . . negotiations to restore Iranian compliance with, and U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appear to have entered a period of stasis that threatens to undo the real and welcome progress made in recent months toward reinstating a non-proliferation achievement that is crucial for international peace and security."

But if reports from Israel are to be believed, that exhortation may fall unheard on the floor. According to reports in the Israel Hayom newspaper and the Kan public broadcaster, "The possibility that the parties will sign an agreement in the foreseeable future is dwindling at an exponential rate." Israeli officials claim "that the White House ‘is much more willing these days, then it was in the past’ to admit the talks are likely to fail.

According to reporting by Barak Ravid, "The Biden administration has recently started discussing a scenario in which the nuclear deal isn’t revived." This discussion seems to be the opposite of Biden’s promise that his administration would be the administration of "relentless diplomacy."

Trita Parsi, author of Losing an Enemy, an authoritative account of the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, told me that "the talks are not dead yet." But he said "hope is fast diminishing as neither side is willing to compromise on the issue of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] – a poison pill Trump deliberately put in place to sabotage any attempt to revive the agreement." Iran has said that it wants the IRGC taken off the US list of foreign terrorist organizations; the US has refused to do that.

Parsi told me that "although many senior Israeli officials have publicly stated that it is better for Israel that the JCPOA is revived, . . . the Bennett government would welcome such a collapse."

There is no way to know if the Israeli reports and prognosis are true. But, as if timed to synchronize with them, two more announcements came out of Washington that, given the sensitive and critical time in the negotiations, seem intended to antagonize Iran rather than diplomatically engage them.

On April 26, while testifying before a senate panel, Blinken made the claim that Iran is trying to assassinate former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "I’m not sure what I can say in an open setting, but let me say generically that there is an ongoing threat against American officials, both present and past," Blinken said. Blinken said that Iran "need[s] to stop targeting our people – period."

The statement is highly hypocritical given that Iran is more assassinated than assassinator. In January 2020, the US assassinated Iranian general Qassen Soleimani in a drone strike outside the Baghdad airport. Pompeo had been a strong supporter of the assassination of the Iranian general and had apparently been the US official to inform Israel of the plan.

At the end of the same year, Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was murdered in a storm of bullets and explosions outside Tehran. Pompeo secretly met with then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu five days before the Israeli assassination. Haaretz reporter Yossi Melman wrote that "it was most likely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu … had consulted with … Donald Trump. Trump and his security and military aides must have been privy to the secret decision. . . ."

Though Iran has likely assassinated some expatriate dissidents in domestic quarrels, those activities stopped decades ago. Iran does not seem to have an active program of international assassinations.

Though Blinken seems to have offered no evidence for his statement, Parsi says that that the "US intelligence believes there is clear evidence that Iran may seek to assassinate former Trump officials do to their role in assassinating Qassen Soleimani."

The second announcement confusingly came from White House press secretary, Jen Psaki. Responding to a question about whether Iran could develop nuclear weapons in a matter of only weeks, Psaki said that "Yes, it definitely worries us."

The next day, the White House clarified that "although Psaki responded to a question about nuclear weapons, she was referring to the breakout time, which is the time it would take to obtain sufficient fissile material for one nuclear bomb, and was not referring to the production of an actual nuclear weapon."

Either way, the comment is a brazen one for the US to make. Iran was never engaged in a nuclear weapons program. First Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have consistently declared nuclear weapons are prohibited by Islamic law. And the US knows Iran is not building a bomb. CIA Director Burns has recently verified once again that the CIA “doesn’t see any evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] has made a decision to move to weaponize.”

As for fissile material, Iran only started slowly and reversibly going beyond the limits prescribed by the JCPOA long after the US had ended their legal requirement to comply by illegally leaving the agreement. Iran’s quantity of fissile material was being well monitored and controlled: Iran was completely and consistently in compliance with their commitments under the agreement, as verified by eleven consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency reports.

So, for the US to complain about a rush to a bomb goes against their own publicly declared evidence. To complain about enriched uranium is brazen and illogical. If the US is concerned about Iran enriching uranium, the best, fastest, proven way to address that concern is to engage in the negotiations to complete the agreement to return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement that was working so well.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.