The administration has called on Iran to return to compliance under the deal, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying there was an opportunity to build on the existing agreement if Iran undertakes “the significant nuclear constraints” already negotiated.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated he may be open to fresh negotiations.
The Institute of Peace event also featured Sullivan’s predecessor, Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Sullivan’s remarks on Iran were a moment of obvious friction between the men at an event intended to signal continuity in US foreign policy despite the acrimonious transition that saw Trump refuse to accept his electoral defeat and his supporters storm the US Capitol.
Sullivan thanked O’Brien for the “really great partnership he provided” during a “strange and in some ways turbulent” transition, and said Biden’s team would seek to build on progress the Trump administration had made striking a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and normalising relations between Israel and Arab states. O’Brien said he had assured allies of the country’s “strength and resilience” during the transition period.
“There are things we may differ on, whether it’s Iran or other issues, but there’s a lot of continuity and consistency,” O’Brien said.
Iran began enriching uranium at levels exceeding limits in the 2015 deal the Obama administration had negotiated in conjunction with other international powers. Trump subsequently disowned the accord and implemented new sanctions.
Iran’s government has insisted that the Biden administration remove the sanctions as a first step.
Sullivan did not mention a previous Biden precondition that Iran make the first move by rolling back nuclear activities to comply with terms of the 2015 deal.
“We are going to have to address Iran’s other bad behaviour, malign behaviour across the region, but from our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon,” Sullivan said.
Containing Iran’s ability to produce bomb-related nuclear material was the central rationale the Obama administration applied in seeking the deal that Sullivan helped to shape.
The timing of a US return to the deal, as well as new concessions or promises made to Iran and the scope of a potential follow-on agreement, is one of the first major foreign policy tests for the Biden administration.
Sullivan did not spell out a preferred timeline, and the issue is now being debated among White House and State Department advisers, but Sullivan’s emphasis on a pressing need to contain Iran suggests he may push for an accelerated response.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has adopted a cynical tone in terms of achieving fast action, saying on his first full day in office on Wednesday that a US return to the deal was still far off.
“Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts,” Blinken said during a news conference at the State Department. “And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance and time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. We’re not there yet, to say the least.”
As a 2020 presidential candidate, Biden committed to returning to the international compact that Trump had run in 2016 on reversing. After Trump pulled the United States out in 2018, Iran began breaking its obligations under the agreement.
Biden set the condition that Iran would have to return to complying with the agreement first, and said a restored deal would then be a starting point for negotiation of a larger agreement that addresses long-standing concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile capability, its support for terrorism, and aggressions toward Israel and Persian Gulf neighbours.
Sullivan mentioned those concerns in remarks to the United States Institute of Peace, and said the threats had only become worse because of Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal.
The 2015 deal is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Bloomberg, Washington Post
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