Top Democratic senator opposes reentering Iran deal under previous terms

Chris Coons, seen as potential Biden pick for secretary of state, says Washington must demand limits on Tehran’s ballistic missiles and proxy groups

US Sen. Chris Coons questions Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, May 15, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US Sen. Chris Coons questions Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, May 15, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Democratic US Senator Chris Coons has said he will not support reentering the Iran nuclear deal without agreed limitations on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support for belligerent proxy groups throughout the Middle East.

Coons, seen as a potential pick for secretary of state in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, told Reuters the deal would “need a path forward for limits on their missile program and their support for proxies before I would support reentering the [accord]. These need to happen at the same time.”

Biden has said he would seek to reenter the 2015 deal that US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

As Biden prepares to enter office in January, recent days have seen representatives of several Mideast nations voice their opposition to an American return to the deal in its previous form.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said Monday that it would be a “mistake” for the incoming administration to reenter the accord.

US President-elect Joe Biden smiles as he speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, Nov. 10, 2020 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

“I think it would be a mistake and hopefully he will look at the Middle East as it is, he will see the benefits of [the normalization] process, of how he can continue that process, and I think to not go back into the same deal,” Dermer said during a panel with his Emirati and Bahraini counterparts in Washington.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani on Wednesday also urged the incoming administration to consult with its allies in the Middle East before renegotiating a nuclear deal with Iran.

“We need to be consulted if the US pursues such an agreement with Iran,” al-Zayani said. “Any nation concerned by Iran’s belligerence should, and will, make their case.”

Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, on Tuesday cautioned the same.

In this November 24, 2018, file photo, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal talks to the Associated Press in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

“While we all aspire to have Iran back as a normal peaceful nation-state within the international community, the last forty years’ experience with the Iranian regime is not encouraging,” said Faisal in a speech to the National Council on US-Arab Relations, in which he also warned Biden against repeating past “mistakes.”

Any non-comprehensive agreement “will not achieve lasting peace and security in our region,” he said, lamenting that the nuclear deal “did not rationalize Iranian destructive behavior in our region,” which he said is no less of a threat than its nuclear aspirations.

The nuclear deal with Iran was clinched in 2015 when Biden was vice president.

At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led an aggressive public campaign against the accord that climaxed with a speech before a joint session of Congress that was organized behind the back of then-president Barack Obama.

Netanyahu warned then that the nuclear deal taking shape “paves the path for Iran” to a nuclear arsenal, rather than blocking it, and urged American leaders to walk away from what he called “a very bad deal.”

Since Trump pulled out of the accord in 2018 and began imposing crushing economic sanctions on Tehran — a move that was cheered by Netanyahu and other Israeli officials — the Islamic Republic has retaliated by producing more and more highly enriched fissile material in violation of the agreement, getting closer and closer to a bomb, while still leaving room for a return to negotiations.

This nuclear brinksmanship has continued over the past two years, fueled in part by the Iranian regime choosing to wait for the results of the 2020 presidential election, in order to determine how best to bargain with the United States.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

The Trump administration is reportedly planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to reenter the deal.

During the recent presidential campaign, Biden and his aides slammed Trump’s 2018 decision to bolt the agreement, arguing that it allowed Iran to progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapon. They pledged that a Biden administration would work to renegotiate a “longer and stronger” deal.

Israel is preparing for the shift in US policy toward the region, with the Walla news site reporting that Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has set up a small team in his office that will be tasked with producing a strategy to ensure Jerusalem is kept in the loop on the administration’s efforts to re-enter the nuclear deal.

“We do not want to be left out again,” Ashkenazi said in a closed briefing before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week, according to Walla.

The foreign minister said the government should refrain from repeating past mistakes that left it isolated as the Obama administration negotiated the 2015 agreement.

Iran is the region’s leading Shiite power and tied to groups in the region including its proxy Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

Taking a step back from the brink, Iran’s foreign minister said Tuesday that Tehran was willing to return to the nuclear deal if Biden lifts sanctions on Iran after entering the White House.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, November 5, 2020. (Matias Delacroix/AP)

“We are ready to discuss how the United States can re-enter the accord,” Zarif told Iranian media, according to a translation by the Reuters news agency.

“If Mr. Biden is willing to fulfill US commitments, we too can immediately return to our full commitments in the accord… and negotiations are possible within the framework of the P5+1,” Zarif said, referring to the six world powers that signed onto the deal.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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