United States President-elect Joe Biden has said in a new interview that returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is the best way to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Biden, in a New York Times interview published on Wednesday, reiterated that the US would rejoin the agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Iran returns to “strict compliance”. Under the accord, Iran had agreed to curtail its nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief.
Biden said a return to the agreement, which would include lifting the sanctions imposed by the administration of President Donald Trump, would serve as a “starting point to follow-on negotiations”. Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, and has since imposed a campaign of “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran.
“Look, there’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and all range of other things that are destabilising the region,” Biden told the newspaper, saying, the fact is, “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program”.
Biden told the Times that follow-on negotiations would include seeking to lengthen the nuclear deal’s 15-year provision that restricts Iran from enriching uranium to the level needed for a nuclear weapon. That timeline has been at the centre of critics’ discontent with the original agreement.
Biden also said subsequent negotiations would address Iran’s backing of militia groups in proxy conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and that he would like to see regional neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates join the original signatories – Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union – in any new agreements.
The president-elect, who is set to take office on January 20, warned that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will set off an arms race with regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.
“The last goddamn thing we need in that part of the world is a buildup of nuclear capability,” Biden said.
He is also acknowledging that under the deal, Iran will be subject to so-called “snapback” sanctions if found to be in noncompliance. Since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Tehran has continued to violate provisions of the agreement, arguing the US was already in breach.
Tehran has expressed a willingness to return to the agreement, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview published on November 18, saying the country would return to “full commitments in the accord” if Biden lifts sanctions.
He added, “negotiations are possible within the deal”.
However, the November 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top scientist in Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, is expected to complicate relations between the Biden administration and Tehran.
Iran has accused rival Israel of carrying out the killing. While Israel and the US have remained mostly silent on the matter, it is widely believed that Tel Aviv would have not proceeded without the go-ahead from Washington.
Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reported on Monday that Trump has given his administration officials, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “carte blanche” to take as aggressive of an approach as they would like towards Iran in the waning days of the administration.
Trump’s one ask was that they did not “start World War III”, the news site reported, citing senior administration officials.
The president’s directive permits imposing further sanctions on Iran while continuing to remain quiet on the killing of Fakhrizadeh. It is aimed at both damaging Iran and crippling Biden’s prospects of resuscitating the nuclear deal, according to the news site.