Antony Blinken’s warnings about Iran are worrying — but not in the way he means

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Antony Blinken, then deputy secretary of state, testifies on Capitol Hill, January 27, 2015. AP Photo/Susan Walsh
  • President Job Biden suggested a fairly quick reversal could be possible if Iran returned to the original terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • But recent remarks by Secretary of State Antony Blinken raise questions about when the Biden administration will return to the pact – or even whether it will do so at all.
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Iran could be mere “weeks” away from amassing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC News in an interview, if it continues to reject the constraints of the 2015 nuclear deal, as Tehran has gradually done following US withdrawal from the agreement in 2018.

This forecast is worrisome — though not in the way Blinken intended. Scaremongering about Iran’s supposed proximity to the bomb is nothing new, and most experts believe that even with its recent activity, Iran is a year or more away from a completed nuclear weapon.

Moreover, even if Blinken’s timeline were correct, the capability to build a bomb is not the same as the intent to do so — let alone to use it against the US or our allies. A nuclear-armed Iran would still be overwhelmingly outmatched by the United States by every conventional military and nuclear measure; our deterrence would hold.

No, what’s worrisome is the doubt Blinken casts on whether the administration he serves will rejoin the nuclear deal as Biden promised. This is but one in a series of comments from Blinken this year which raise questions about when the Biden administration will return to the pact — or even whether it will do so at all.

Iran nuclear deal
John Kerry, then secretary of state, left, faces Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif ahead of a meeting in Lausanne, March 26, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski

Biden has suggested a fairly quick reversal could be possible if the Iranian regime returned to the original terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints,” he said in a representative statement in August 2019. “Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish US credibility, signalling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something.”

Biden has consistently described the deal as a source of regional stability and a foundation for further diplomacy rather than an end-point in US-Iran relations.

His “credible path back to diplomacy” for Tehran has long been defined as JCPOA compliance, which would trigger the United States to rejoin the deal, and that in turn would mean removing the sanctions the Trump administration levied. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called returning to the deal a “critical early priority,” suggesting Biden’s timeline could be executed fairly soon.

But Blinken has repeatedly envisioned a slower, more complicated process. “We are a long way from” getting back into the deal, he said during his Senate confirmation hearings, because Washington would “have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they are coming back into compliance with their obligations, and then we would take it from there.”

FILE PHOTO: (L-R) Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry listen as President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki address reporters after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 1, 2013.     REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
Biden, then vice president, with Blinken, then deputy national security advisor, in the Oval Office, November 1, 2013. Reuters

Blinken reiterated this hesitance a week later, saying renewal and verification of compliance would be slow going. “So, we’re not there yet, to say the least,” he concluded, announcing US sanctions will stay in place for now.

That will be a tough sell in Tehran — and understandably so. For all its many flaws, the Iranian government was in full, independently-verified compliance with the JCPOA when former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States and re-imposed punitive sanctions three years ago.

Trump thought he could strongarm Iran into a better deal, but the message Tehran received — as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made eminently clear recently — was that Washington is untrustworthy and will punish Iran regardless of compliance.That is the bad faith Biden must overcome.

Tehran’s demand now is “for US action to effectively undo sanctions, give us access to our own funds, permit easy oil exports, and allow the transfer of oil revenue, shipping, and insurance,” Iranian Foreign Ministry representative Saeed Khatibzadeh said Monday. To that end, the Iranian Parliament has set Sunday, February 21, as a deadline for sanctions relief.

“If the [Biden] administration does not meet its obligations and remove sanctions in short order, it will destroy the possibility for engagement within the nuclear agreement,” Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, wrote at The New York Times last week.

Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the 69th UN General Assembly, at UN Headquarters in New York, September 26, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Meeting that deadline will be difficult if the apparent slow-walking from Blinken (as well as Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines) holds sway. Biden should instead use this Iran-proposed deadline to serve American interests: Select it as a day of mutual concessions, a concurrent reversion to the JCPOA status quo.

For Iran, that means returning to nuclear compliance, which will subsequently be certified by outside inspectors, just as happened before US withdrawal. For the United States, it means formally rejoining the JCPOA and, per its terms, nixing sanctions Trump brought back.

The imperative now is that both countries quit playing chicken, each insisting the other go first, and recommit to the deal simultaneously. This concrete step forward, not Blinken’s delay, is what Biden needs to move forward to more productive diplomacy and sustainable peace.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defence Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defence One, among other outlets.