Is Blinken blinking on Iran?

I hope I am not reading too much into Secretary Blinken's pessimistic report on the status of the Vienna negotiations on re-joining Obama's Iran nuclear deal.  But it does not sound good — for two reasons, one obvious, the other less so.

Obama's 2015 "deal," from which President Trump withdrew in 2018, was rotten to the core, as it gave the ayatollahs the legal right to enrich uranium all they want after 2030.  Blinken's admission that "it remains unclear whether Iran is willing and prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance" is not in itself particularly troubling; the world is much better without that deal than it is with it.

What's worrisome is his analysis of the potential consequences: "What we do know, unfortunately, is that meanwhile [Iran's nuclear] program is galloping forward[.] ... It has lifted restraints imposed on it by the agreement including the amount of enriched material that it has; material that's now, in some cases, enriched up to 20% and even a small amount to 60%.  It has started to deploy some more advanced centrifuges. ... [T]he longer this goes on, the more their breakout time gets down.  The agreement had pushed it to a year or more ... it's now down — by published reports — to a few months at best.  And if this continues, it will get down to a matter of weeks, exactly what we sought to avoid and what the agreement stopped."

In other words, as was clear right in 2015, Obama's "deal" was based on a simple premise: Iran was to get an atom bomb anyway — so let's at least buy some time and negotiate a 15-year hiatus, so some other administration deals with that eventuality.  Granting legitimacy to the bomb was not too high a price — if Iran gets a bomb, does it matter if it got it legally or not?  If granting it legality could delay it by 15 years, why not do it?  So now that the Biden administration stares at the possibility that this eventuality will arrive ten years sooner, on its watch, what is it to do?

It is in this context that Blinken's conclusion is highly concerning: "We have a real incentive if we can to at least put that back in the box."

What does this "real incentive" mean?  Is Blinken preparing the ground to concede to Iran much more than mere "compliance" with the terms of the deal?  After all, the ayatollahs demand that U.S. pay compensation for damages to the Iranian economy incurred due to U.S. sanctions since 2018 and removal of non-nuclear-related sanctions.  Is this what Blinken is driving at, hinting at full normalization of Iran's activities as a necessary price that fits the U.S.'s "incentive" of salvaging the "deal" and putting Iran's program "back in the box" of the JCPOA for another ten years, so, just like Obama, Biden does not have to deal with it?

Iran is very good at playing the game of chicken.  There is an unrelated report that the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, expressed serious concerns that Iran keeps withholding an explanation on the presence of nuclear material at the sites that it did not declare to the IAEA.  Clandestine nuclear work is a clear-cut Iranian violation of the "deal" and should leave other signatories with no option but to "snap back" sanctions and stop pretending the "deal" is in effect.  Yet Iran is not worried and is willing to needle and antagonize not just the U.S., but also the Europeans who are mortally afraid that the "deal" will fall through and therefore act as Iran's faithful lapdogs.

Clearly, the ayatollahs are engaged in extortion in Vienna.  They sense the U.S.'s urge to get back into the deal, so they up and up the price for readmission.  The troubling question is, will Biden succumb, and bring Iran in from the cold, to enable it to do infinitely more mischief than it is doing now?  Is Blinken blinking in this game of chicken?

I am afraid I find it hard to interpret his words any other way.  I only hope I am wrong.  The news that Iran keeps getting closer to the bomb is only one bad aspect of it.  The news that the U.S. may conclude that surrendering the sanctions regime may be worth getting Iran's program "back in the box" for the next 10 years is even more worrisome.

Image via Flickr, Public Domain.

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