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Trump’s Iran envoy: Biden would have difficulties reviving 2015 nuclear pact

Visiting Israel, Elliott Abrams says he’s optimistic about new administration’s ability to negotiate a better deal, if it leverages economic hardship caused by crippling sanctions

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams speaks to Israeli reporters in Tel Aviv, November 9, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)
US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams speaks to Israeli reporters in Tel Aviv, November 9, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

The next US administration will enter talks with Tehran over its rogue nuclear program, but a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement would be difficult, outgoing US President Donald Trump’s point man on Iran said Monday.

US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams, who visited Israel this week, expressed optimism that even Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, who is widely acknowledged to have won the election, would be able to negotiate a better agreement — if he leveraged the current administration’s economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

“It doesn’t really matter who is president on January 20, in the sense that there’s going to be a negotiation with Iran anyway. That was the intention of the Trump administration. So that’s not a source of disagreement,” he told a handful of Israeli reporters during a briefing in Tel Aviv.

“Whether it’s possible to go back to the JCPOA remains to be seen,” he added, using an acronym for the Iran nuclear deal’s formal name.

Championed by then-US president Barack Obama — Biden’s former boss — the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in 2015 between Iran and six world powers. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and leveled crippling sanctions on Iran. Israel and the Arab Gulf states applauded the move, but Europe, Russia, and China tried to salvage the deal.

Since the US quit the deal, Iran has gradually reduced its compliance with it. President-elect Biden has said that if Tehran would adhere to the terms of the deal he would renew Washington’s commitment to the pact.

US President-elect Joe Biden removes his face mask as he arrives to speak on November 9, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

But Abrams, a veteran of Republican administrations, said that it would not be that easy to revive the agreement, noting that the arms embargo on Iran, which was part of the deal, was lifted earlier this year.

“I don’t think that going back to the JCPOA in 2021 is a simple prospect,” he said.

Before the November 4 elections in the US, Trump said he was confident he would be able to make a deal with the Iranians, but Abrams acknowledged it would be “extremely difficult” for his administration to negotiate a new agreement before January 20.

Rather, Washington will continue to steadily increase sanctions on the Islamic Republic in the coming weeks as had long been planned, he said. However, Abrams stressed that the administration will not dramatically escalate punitive measures against the regime.

“We have a maximum pressure sanctions program. If you look at September and October, you will see sanctions being put in place. This will continue in November and December, because it’s unrelated to politics, it’s unrelated to elections. It’s the foreign policy of the US, and it’s based on Iran’s conduct,” he said.

Elliot Abrams, special representative for Iran and Venezuela at the State Department, attends a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on US Policy in the Middle East, September 24, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

“For example, when we sanction the Iranian ambassador to Iraq under counterterrorism authorities, because he’s a Quds Force guy, it has nothing to do with politics. It’s because he’s a Quds Force guy,” he said, referring to a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Axios this week reported that the Trump administration plans a massive onslaught of new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program, assistance to terror groups and human rights violations.

“The goal is to slap as many sanctions as possible on Iran until January 20,” an Israeli source briefed on the plan told the website.

Legally, Biden could lift sanctions on Iran once he entered the White House, Abrams said.

Trump’s sanctions in Iran ‘can be reversed, in theory, but it’s hard to see for me how any president would really do that without a change in Iran’s behavior

“Whether it’s advisable and whether it’s politically possible is a different question,” he added. Some of the sanctions the Trump administration has imposed on Iran are unrelated to Iran’s nuclear activities, and are instead connected to the regime’s human rights abuses and its conventional regional aggression, he stressed.

“They can be reversed, in theory, but it’s hard for me to see how any president would really do that without a change in Iran’s behavior,” he said. “And Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.”

Iran is in dire economic straits due to the US sanctions, Abrams said, urging the new administration to make use of that fact to negotiate a better agreement.

“We have a lot of leverage as a result of that pressure. So our view is that that leverage should be used, not discarded,” he said. “Using that leverage, it should be possible to get Iran to stop doing a number of the things that it is doing, including their nuclear activities.”

From left, Head of Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union Hailong Wu, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifat, Russian Deputy Political Director Alexey Karpov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and US Secretary of State John Kerry arrive in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 2, 2015, after the United States, Iran and five other world powers announced an understanding outlining limits on Iran’s nuclear program. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

Even though the US is currently alone in sanctioning Iran, the Islamic Republic today is in worse shape than it was in 2013, when the US and other powers started negotiating with it after years of international sanctions, Abrams posited.

“I am actually optimistic — if the pressure that the US has because of the success of the sanctions campaign is utilized,” he said. “The regime is in a situation in which they really need these sanctions lifted. And if we demand changes in their conduct, I don’t think they have another option.”

The Iranian population despises the country’s political leadership, Abrams posited. “As the economy comes under more pressure, the regime understands that this could have a significant political impact inside the country,” he said. “In any situation like this, you build pressure and you build [more] pressure. And then you use it. That was the Biden plan; that is the Trump plan — to enter negotiations with Iran, to use the pressure. I think if the pressure is maintained and used, we’ll see a good outcome.”

Elliott Abrams, US special representative for Iran and Venezuela, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 8, 2020. Out of view is David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Israel was the first stop in Abrams’s visit to the region, which will take him to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia later this week. In Jerusalem, he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, but was hesitant to discuss in any depth the content of his discussions.

Asked if Washington were to give Israel the green light to take action to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons capability, he replied: “We used to say, in the [George W.] Bush White House: We’re not traffic cops. We don’t give red lights and green lights and yellow lights.”

Then-US president George W. Bush welcomes then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in May of 2006. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Then-US president George W. Bush welcomes then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to the Oval Office of the White House, May 2006. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/ Flash90)

Abrams recalled that he was present in the White House when Bush and then-prime minister Ehud Olmert discussed the possibility of Jerusalem launching a preemptive military strike on Iran.

“Five presidents of the US, consecutively, have said that they will not permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon. That is also the Israeli position. Not only would that be the position of the next president — whoever will be elected in 2024 will have that position,” he asserted.

Abrams added: “The relationship between the US and Israel is not one in which we play traffic policemen. The US believes that Israel will act responsibly to protect its national security.”

Asked if he believes a Biden administration would urge Netanyahu not to preemptively attack Iran, he refused to comment.

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