Iran: the Trump-Pompeo legacy and Biden’s early moves

Pompeo was constantly in search of ways to cast Iran as the primary source of problems in the Middle East

Shahid Javed Burki March 08, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Mike Pompeo who had held the post of secretary of state in the Trump administration planted a number of landmines of which at least two would affect Iran. Pompeo designated the Houthi rebels who had been fighting in Yemen, as terrorists and imposed a slew of new sanctions on Tehran. Both Democrats and Republicans criticised the Houthi designation which was to take effect the day before the Biden inauguration as have several humanitarian organisations working to keep millions of Yemenis from starving. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin also opposed the Pompeo move.

The soon-to-be-former secretary of state was constantly in search of ways to cast Iran as the primary source of problems in the Middle East. Pompeo was emphatically opposed to Biden’s stated plans to re-enter the international nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 with Tehran and co-signed by large world powers. He had concluded that one of his objectives was to place hurdles in Biden’s way. But the president-elect was not deterred from planning to go back to the status quo. Biden and Tehran said they were willing to trade “compliance with compliance.” That meant that each side would reverse the steps they had taken outside the parameters of the 2015 agreement. For Iran, that would imply reversing the activation of additional uranium-enriching centrifuges and observing the deal’s limits on the quantity and quality of enriched material. For the United States it would mean removing all nuclear-related sanctions as agreed in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA. But most US sanctions — charging Iran with terrorism support, ballistic missile development and other types of activity — would remain. It was not clear whether Iran would want the additional sanctions imposed by Pompeo as he was leaving office to be removed.

According to officials in the Biden administration, Washington took a major step on February 18, 2021, toward restoring the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned, offering to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years. Biden also backed away from Trump’s effort to restore United Nations sanctions on Iran. It was of some significance that President Biden waited to call Benjamin Netanyahu only after his colleagues had decided to move on the Iran issue. The Israeli Prime Minister had exercised a great deal of influence on former president Trump in the latter’s approach to Iran. “Israel’s media and political class have been aflutter about the delay in contact between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Biden,” wrote The Washington Post in an editorial which it subtitled “Mr Biden Distance from the Israeli Prime Minister is a Wise Move”. During the first four weeks of the new administration, Biden spoke by phone with the leaders of virtually every major US ally, along with those of Russia and China. But he did not call Netanyahu until Wednesday, February 17. Continued the newspaper in the editorial: “Mr Biden should not allow Mr Netanyahu to thwart his hope to revitalise and expand the Iran nuclear agreement. Israel insists that for the Jewish state, Iran is an existential threat.”

Secretary of State Anthony J Blinken told European ministers in a call that the US would join them in seeking to restore the 2015 deal which he said “was a key multilateral diplomacy”. The secretary did not reveal the proposals the US might bring to the table once talks begin. The US was lifting travel restrictions on Iranian officials who need to enter America to attend UN meetings. Some analysts have suggested that the US could break the stalemate by supporting Iran’s recent request to the IMF for a $5 billion emergency loan to help it respond to economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Hours after the Blinken call, Enrique Mora, the European Union’s deputy secretary general for political affairs appealed to the original signatories of the 2015 deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — to salvage it at “a critical moment. I am ready to invite them to an informal meeting to discuss the way forward.” Iran would probably be more open to a meeting with the EU where the US was a guest or an observer rather than direct formal talks with Washington as a participant. What was complicating the issue for Iran was the presidential elections due to be held in June. It was not clear given that important event in the country’s political calendar, whether the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the nation’s military leaders would fully support re-engagement with the US. It was also not clear as to how much of the original agreement could be restored. Under that deal 97% of the country’s nuclear fuel was to be shipped out of the country and sharp limits were placed on new production. In return, world powers were to lift sanctions that had crippled the Iranian economy. After Trump’s Washington walked out of the deal, Iran enriched and compiled nuclear fuel beyond the JCPOA limits.

The offer of talks from Washington came days before a February 21 deadline when Iran had said it would bar international inspectors from visiting undeclared nuclear facilities and conducting unannounced inspections of nuclear sites. It was not clear whether China and Russia would want to join negotiations if they were to take place. Both countries had developed close economic and military relations with Iran. China did not observe the embargo on purchasing oil gas from Tehran and has found a way to bypass the ban on using Western banks to finance trade with Iran. It was crucial to the international community’s confidence that Iran was not rapidly reconstituting its ability to make a weapon. There was growing circumstantial evidence, much of it provided by Israeli intelligence, that the country never fully disclosed the sites in its nuclear programme.

The liberal community in the US was in favour of the Biden administration approaching Iran. “Diplomacy with Iran Deserves Another Try”, David Ignatius headlined one of his columns for The Washington Post written while he was travelling with General Frank McKenzie, who commanded the US forces in the Middle East and parts of South Asia. According to the general, “any agreement that we can get that would limit nuclear proliferation is a good thing.” However, on February 28, Iran rejected the US offer saying that time was not ripe to hold such talks. The US had complicated policymaking in Tehran by sending its bombers to strike a border-crossing station in eastern Syria used by the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Al Shuhada. The operation followed a deadly attack on a location that housed US personnel in Iraq that American officials attributed to Iranian-linked groups. This was the first Middle East military operation by the Biden administration.


Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2021.

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