US President Joe Biden has signaled he intends to improve relations with Iran. Image: Twitter

Tehran rejected on Sunday a pending proposal from the European Union to arrange a “diplomatic conversation” with the US. But the Iranian statement in this regard is rather nuanced.

Speaking to reporters in Tehran on Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh stated: 

“In view of the recent stances and measures taken by the United States and the three European countries [that are signatories to the JCPOA], the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that this is not a good time for holding an unofficial meeting on the accord as proposed by the EU foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell.” 

Khatibzadeh added: “The way forward is quite clear. The US must end its illegal and unilateral sanctions and return to its JCPOA commitments. This issue neither needs negotiation, nor a resolution by the Board of Governors [of the International Atomic Energy Agency].

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will respond to actions with action and just in the same way that it will return to its JCPOA commitments as sanctions are removed, it will also answer in kind to all hostile measures and behavior.”

Plainly put, this may well become another goof-up by the Joe Biden administration in its Persian Gulf policy on top of the screw-up of the seven-decade-old US-Saudi alliance. The administration should have known that Tehran would never talk directly with the US as long as Washington maintained its current level of sanctions. Former president Donald Trump bullied Iran for three years and failed. 

Curiously, instead of offering any sanctions relief, President Biden mounted the high horse, insisting that Iran should first return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and not the US, even though it was Trump’s pullout in 2018 that precipitated the entire sequence of developments resulting in the current impasse.

Antony Blinken rallied the E3 signatories to the JCPOA. Photo: AFP

Biden shouldn’t have started such a petty squabble, considering the high stakes involved. 

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken rallied the E3 signatories to the JCPOA (the UK, France and Germany) to harmonize with the US stance on the Iran issue, and a joint statement was issued that made a litany of demands on Iran. Blinken apparently assumes that Tehran is desperate to talk anyway. 

The White House simultaneously began consulting Israel, despite the latter’s stance that Biden ought to pick up the threads of his predecessor’s “maximum pressure” strategy and simply double down.

According to reports, the US and Israel will cooperate within a mechanism at the level of the two national security advisers to exchange views, coordinate and navigate the Iran issue. 

Furthermore, Biden embarked on a bizarre air strike in Syria last Thursday night and went on to brag that he was giving a warning to Iran. As he put it, “you can’t act with impunity. Be careful.”

A flexing of muscle at this delicate moment was avoidable. Ironically, Biden’s own Democratic Party denounced Trump’s similar airstrikes in the past without Congress’ authorization.

Above all, Blinken persuaded the E3 to move the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to censure Iran for its decision to suspend the Additional Protocol of the JCPOA (which was in the first instance a voluntary provision). 

US diplomats circulated a document on Thursday that listed Washington’s grievances and ordered Iran to cooperate with fully inspectors. The proposed censure suggests the US is ratcheting up the pressure. The E3 resolution would “underscore strong concern at the IAEA’s findings” and “express the board’s deepening concern with respect to Iran’s cooperation.”

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on September 22, 2020, shows President Hassan Rouhani delivering his United Nations General Assembly speech online from the capital Tehran. Photo: AFP/Iranian Presidency

Indeed, it is likely that Israel is once again pulling strings from behind the scenes and feeding the White House NSA Jake Sullivan with doctored intelligence. Equally, Biden could be deliberately dragging his feet and grandstanding with a view to score political points with Republicans, Saudis or Israelis. 

At any rate, the momentum is getting lost with each passing day. Trust the Israel-Saudi-UAE axis to step up efforts now to thwart any US-Iran talks. Riyadh is seething with fury after the humiliation suffered over a Central Intelligence Agency report on Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden also needs to be mindful of the mood in Congress, where he has important business to transact in the coming days and weeks – the Covid-19 relief package to begin with. 

On top of all this, the US has also ratcheted up tensions with Russia, whose help is vital to moderate Iran’s stance. Evidently, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand wants. 

A flashpoint is arising. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, said in a tweet on Sunday: “IAEA BoG session will start tomorrow [March 1]. It can predetermine further developments around the Iranian nuclear program, as well as prospects of full restoration of JCPOA. All Governors need to keep this in mind and exercise responsible approach.”

Iran sent a letter to the IAEA warning that it may stop its cooperation with the UN watchdog altogether if it adopts the resolution in Vienna.

This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

Belatedly, the Biden team seems to be getting the point that it overreached and has precipitated a grave situation.

A White House spokeswoman told Reuters on Sunday no sooner than word came from Tehran on its rejection of talks: “While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to re-engage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments.”

These are conciliatory words, but it is difficult to see how the US and E3 could walk back from their threatened IAEA censure without a serious loss of face. It is going to be even harder now for Biden to do what should have been the natural thing to do, namely remove some of the sanctions against Iran.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.