Biden administration not waiting for nuclear talk denouement to begin damage control

To prepare for either stalemate or an unpopular deal coming out of Vienna talks, US doubles down on message that intractable conflict is a result of Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US President Joe Biden speaks to the media after meeting privately with Senate Democrats, Jan. 13, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US President Joe Biden speaks to the media after meeting privately with Senate Democrats, Jan. 13, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Since he entered office, and even before, US President Joe Biden has made a point of insisting that Iranian escalations in the past several years are a direct result of his predecessor Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Interviews and briefings with Biden officials on Iran policy were almost sure to include a reference to the former president’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

But this week, the White House found it necessary to double down on the message, with press secretary Jen Psaki reading a prepared statement to that effect during her Wednesday briefing.

“What we’d like to remind the public of is why we are at this point now,” she began. “None of the things we’re looking at now — Iran’s increased capability and capacity, their aggressive actions that they have taken through proxy wars around the world — would be happening if the former president had not recklessly pulled out of the nuclear deal with no thought as to what might come next.”

So important was it for the Biden administration to get this message through that it leaked its plans several hours in advance to the Axios news site, giving it extra time to snowball as an exclusive report first.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price delivered a nearly identical message a day earlier.

“It’s worth spending just a moment on how we got here,” Price said. “It is deeply unfortunate that because of an ill-considered or perhaps unconsidered decision by the previous administration that this administration came into office without these stringent verification and monitoring protocols that were in place.”

The separate but indistinguishable statements were issued as the eighth round of negotiations between Tehran and world powers aimed at a joint US-Iran return to the JCPOA were in full swing.

A State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that as the Vienna talks enter “crunch time,” the Biden administration felt it “was necessary to remind the public of the very difficult diplomatic front we inherited and why accordingly it has been so difficult to make progress.”

One diplomat familiar with the nuclear talks said there have been some reasons for optimism since the eighth round commenced on January 3, though significant hurdles remain.

“We may well know in the coming weeks, not months, if the JCPOA is salvageable, given [the Biden administration’s] shrinking patience for the dragged-out negotiation process,” the diplomat said.

As such, the US appears to be laying the groundwork for a messaging campaign that can be applied regardless of how talks play out. If the sides fail to reach a deal, Biden can say it was because of his predecessor’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. And if somehow the sides manage to stifle their differences enough to salvage the accord, the president can respond to subsequent accusations he caved to Tehran by arguing that he made the most of an impossible hand dealt by Trump.

US President Donald Trump signs a Presidential Memorandum withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, on May 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Setting the record straight

Suzanne Maloney, who serves as vice president and director of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program, speculated that the latest messaging campaign is a reaction to growing calls from Congressional Republicans for the US to walk out of the Vienna talks.

“There is a desire on the part of the administration to avoid being rushed into a decision by pressure from either Congress or the media,” Maloney said.

She surmised that the decision to highlight the anti-Trump message and leak it to Axios ahead of time was more of a public relations decision than a policy one.

Maloney was skeptical as to whether the message would resonate.

“I don’t know that anyone in the American public right now is terribly focused on the Iran nuclear deal. If there’s a foreign policy issue that people are paying attention to, it’s not Iran right now. And I think for most Americans, it’s not any [foreign policy] questions. It’s Omicron and the economy.”

Nonetheless, she defended the administration’s decision to raise the point now.

“It doesn’t solve the problem, but it is important to understanding the complexity of the situation that we’re in,” Maloney said.

Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, left, and Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, leave the IAEA General Conference in Vienna, Austria, September 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

“The reality is that the current crisis is frankly unnecessary. We were always going to be in a difficult situation with the Iranians today, but we might not have had the same stockpile of [low-enriched uranium], we might not have the Iranians enriching to 60% and talking about going well beyond that, we might not have had the [research and development] and some of the other steps that they’ve taken out of compliance with their own obligations,” she said. “It is still very much a set of decisions that were taken by the Trump administration that put us in this position today.”

Maloney maintained that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and the subsequent maximum pressure sanctions campaign he implemented against Iran “was not a policy that achieved its aims, so if we’re going to achieve those aims today, we have to take into account the fallout from a failed policy.”

‘After a year, you own the problem’

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington was less sympathetic to the Biden administration’s messaging, calling it an “unconvincing political attack.”

He argued that it was more driven by domestic politics than the status of negotiations in Vienna.

“A lot of people on the right are blaming Biden for Iran’s hostility and its aggressive actions. They’re criticizing Biden for caving to Iran. It’s a low blow because Biden hasn’t done anything of the kind. But they’re responding with a low blow of their own by suggesting that it’s all the fault of the previous guy,” Ibish said.

He argued that too much has happened in US-Iran relations in the nearly four years since the JCPOA withdrawal for Biden to be able to justifiably pin the entire situation on Trump.

A person walks in front of Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, Dec. 09, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

Ibish conceded that the decision to pull out from the deal set off new rounds of tension and confrontation, but that there were also steps taken by Trump to de-escalate, including his decisions not to respond to Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019 and Iranian ballistic missile attacks on military bases in Iraq hosting US personnel in January 2020.

“You’ve had all these different elements of provocation and retaliation that have gone into creating the situation that exists today,” Ibish said. “Trump has some share, Biden has some share, maybe even arguably, Obama has some share as well. It’s not a simple matter.”

“Trump inherited a situation that was inherently volatile. He made it worse, but he didn’t invent it,” Ibish argued, adding that it’s a tough sell for a president to try to attribute his problems to his predecessor after a full year in office. “In the first six months, you can kind of get away with it, but after a year in power, you own this.”

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