Biden stays silent on Iran as his team works to break nuclear impasse

WASHINGTON, Feb. 6, 2021 (CNN)President Joe Biden presented a sweeping vision of the global challenges facing the US in a Thursday speech that touched on Russia's attacks on US democracy, China's corrosive human rights record and the Burmese military's authoritarian putsch but had one notable omission: The President made no mention of Iran. In a striking counterpoint to Biden's public silence on Tehran, his administration has launched intense behind-the-scenes efforts, reflecting an urgency that administration officials say is needed to address the country's nuclear program, missiles and regional activity, and to resolve the question of how and whether to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

The President's new Iran envoy, Robert Malley, is building a team with varying viewpoints on Tehran and reaching out to lawmakers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, one of several senior US officials conducting outreach on Iran, spoke to European allies Friday, while the National Security Council convened a high-level meeting to discuss Tehran's escalating nuclear enrichment and next steps. The flurry of quiet activity -- alongside Biden's restraint -- underscores the sea change in tactics between this administration and the Trump White House on issues across the board, but particularly when it comes to sensitive diplomatic endeavors. Gone are the provocative tweets and threats, decisions made without allies and outside the deliberative interagency process, a contrast that White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki pointedly highlighted Friday.

"The meeting today is part of an ongoing policy review," Psaki tweeted about the National Security Council's Principals Committee discussions, and "proof that the interagency process is back to functioning after four long years of personality-driven decision-making."

Battle lines drawn

There is broad agreement that while President Donald Trump built some leverage through his maximum pressure campaign on Iran, he failed to use it effectively. Tehran has continued its regional interference, and has steadily increased its violations of the nuclear deal and support for terrorism. Now, with Biden's newly formed Iran team just beginning its work, it is trying to reach consensus about how the US should approach a return to the nuclear deal, a senior administration official told CNN. Already, the first set of diplomatic battle lines has been drawn, both countries are jockeying for position, US lawmakers are advocating for and against, and other actors are trying to create momentum.

The first battle is over the first step. Biden has said the US will rejoin the nuclear deal once Tehran fully complies with the pact again. Iran has responded that because the US left the agreement in 2018, Washington should make the first move by removing the crippling sanctions Trump liberally imposed on Iran's leaders, on individuals and the economy, and for terrorism. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN on Monday that Biden should not waste time returning to the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. "The nuclear agreement is not unlimited. The United States has a limited window of opportunity," he said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour. "The United States needs to come back into compliance and Iran will be ready immediately to respond," Zarif said.

Tehran's Parliament has ratcheted up the pressure, passing legislation on December 2 that requires significant increases in its nuclear activities at regular intervals if Iran's demands for sanctions relief, including on its banking and oil sectors, are not met. Tehran announced in January that it had resumed enriching uranium up to 20% purity at its Fordow facility. Nuclear officials last week increased enrichment capacity at the Natanz facility. And on Monday, Iran aired video footage of what it claimed was the "most powerful" rocket engine using a system that could launch long-range missiles capable of endangering US allies in Europe and the Middle East or the US itself.

Two US defense officials told CNN the US assesses that Iranian leaders were not trying to be provocative but rather signaling they will continue pursuing a nuclear weapons program unless the US first lifts sanctions. Regional experts say that's the point of Iran's nuclear steps as well. "Really the goal of this is to put pressure on the United States to return to the JCPOA. That's kind of the overarching political objective," said Eric Brewer, deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. For its part, the Biden team is betting that Iran wants the deal more desperately than it does. Biden administration officials have repeatedly said they will take their time. Psaki said Friday that renewing the JCPOA is "really up to Iran" and its return to full compliance.

Just the start

State Department spokesman Ned Price, asked if the administration was thinking of sending Iran a signal or goodwill gesture, said the Biden team's "first focus is on engagement, partnership discussions with our allies, partners and members of Congress." If the US does rejoin the JCPOA, Price said, it would be just the start. The US would "use that as a platform for follow-on agreements that would take on other areas of concern ... ballistic missiles, support for proxies, a number of other issues are included in that," he said. Senior officials are sending what might be good cop-bad cop signals, some cautioning that a deal will take time, others suggesting engagement is urgently needed. One administration official told CNN there is growing concern that Iran's nuclear enrichment activities have made the potential for a renewed nuclear deal all but impossible.

Publicly, Blinken has said the US is "a long way" from reaching "a longer and stronger" deal with Iran -- calling for it to first return to full compliance -- while national security adviser Jake Sullivan said January 29 that "a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis" as Iran moves closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon. During an event at the US Institute of Peace, Sullivan noted that after four years, Iran is "significantly closer to a nuclear weapon than they were when the previous administration withdrew from the JCPOA," that "their ballistic missile capability has also advanced dramatically" and "their recklessness and sponsorship of terrorism in the region has not abated and in some areas has accelerated as well."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the increased dangers Sullivan outlined are "precisely what military leaders, diplomats, lawmakers of both parties and our nation's closest allies warned President Trump would happen if he abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement. The new administration is tasked with mitigating the damage caused by Donald Trump, and I believe President Biden and Secretary Blinken are doing what is needed to reengage with our international partners and constrain Iran's nuclear activity."

But James Jeffrey, who served as the Trump administration's special representative for Syria engagement, warned that "finding an agreement quickly on the JCPOA will not be as easy as it sounds." "The Iranians are pressing for things that are unacceptable to us, including the United States' return to compliance first," said Jeffrey, who's now chair of the Wilson Center's Middle East program, in a call with reporters. For its part, the US also wants to discuss missiles "and particularly the Iranian presence and activities in the region. ... Iran does not want to discuss these things and has made that clear."

Biden's omission of Iran, Jeffrey thinks, is due to "some concern that if the Iranians think we really want this agreement more than they do" they will use the non-nuclear issues -- including their missile program, regional activities and support for terrorism -- "to dial up or dial down" pressure on the US and "squeeze more out of us." Removing sanctions too quickly will deprive Biden of the best leverage the US has, Jeffrey said.

Bumpy ride

Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, was more optimistic: "I have a hard time seeing them not resolving this, for the simple reason that it aligns so squarely with both their interests to go back into the JCPOA, but it doesn't mean that it won't be a bumpy ride and these are some of the bumps." The back-and-forth underway between Iran and the US "is all about saving face," said Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Middle East Institute. "Iran wants to negotiate; the Americans want to negotiate." Iran's fragile economy offers the US some leverage, he said. "Both sides know if they start tough negotiations about Iran's missiles there are big questions that will take months, if not years, to negotiate. In the meantime, the Iranian economy is in the tank."

Zarif, who also faces the prospect that June elections might end his tenure as foreign minister, has suggested that European Union foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell could "sort of choreograph the actions that are needed to be taken by the United States and the actions that are needed to be taken by Iran." And French President Emmanuel Macron has made clear he would like the job, saying he would do "whatever I can to support any initiative from the US side to reengage in a demanding dialogue." Speaking during an online forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council think tank, Macron said he would "try to be an honest broker. ... We do need to finalize a new negotiation with Iran and President Biden has a critical role." CNN's Barbara Starr and Vivian Salama contributed to this report.

Ali Khamenei prohibited imports of COVID-19 vaccines from USA & UK

TEHRAN, Jan 8, 2021: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has prohibited imports of COVID-19 vaccines from the United States and the United Kingdom. In a televised speech on Friday, the supreme leader said he has no confidence in vaccines coming out of the two Western powers since they have some of the highest mortality rates in the world. “If the Americans had managed to manufacture a vaccine, this coronavirus fiasco wouldn’t have happened in their own country,” he said, adding that the US is now registering a daily death toll of 4,000 people.

“If they can create a vaccine, if their Pfizer factory can manufacture a vaccine, then why do they want to give it to us? They should consume it themselves so they wouldn’t have so many deaths.” Khamenei said the same applies to the UK, and that he does not trust the US and the UK since they may wish to test out their vaccines on other nations.

Doubts France

The supreme leader also said he has “doubts” about France due to its infected blood scandal that began in the early 1990s. At the time, Iran was among the recipients of blood supplies from France that later turned out to be infected with HIV. Hundreds of Iranian haemophiliacs were infected by the tainted blood and Iran says it never received compensation. The supreme leader’s order led to a halt in Iranian Red Crescent Society’s plans to import 150,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that had been secured with the help of philanthropists, the organisation’s spokesman said shortly after the speech.

“The Red Crescent Society will act based on the supreme leader’s remarks as they distinguish right from wrong concerning all issues including importing corona vaccines,” Mohammad Hassan Ghosian told the Tasnim news website. The Red Crescent Society had previously announced additional plans to buy one million doses of a vaccine from China. Iran’s government is also trying to secure 16.8 million doses of vaccines from COVAX, a global vaccine effort operating under the World Health Organization. On Friday, Khamenei praised efforts to manufacture vaccines in Iran, saying they are a source of “pride”.

Iran launched the human trials of its first vaccine candidate, COVIran Barekat, on December 29. In an effort to boost confidence in the vaccine, the daughter of the head of Setad, a powerful organisation operating under the supreme leader, was the first person to receive a shot. Iran has several other candidates, all of which it said are expected to clear animal trials before the end of February. Source : Al Jazeera

Nullifying Rather Than Removing Sanctions: Ayatollah Khamenei

TEHRAN, Dec 17, 2020:: Leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei has addressed a range of domestic and foreign policy issues in a meeting with a group of the organizers for commemorating the anniversary of the martyrdom of the martyrs of resistance Lieutenant General Haj Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The meeting came a few weeks before the first anniversary of the assassination of General Soleimani and his comrade al-Muhandis near Baghdad’s international airport earlier this year. The two martyrs were assassinated in an American drone strike on January 3 that was ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The strike brought Iran and the United States close to an all-out war as General Soleimani was an influential figure in Iran and beyond. In response, Iran showered a U.S. airbase in western Iran with missiles, causing brain injury among dozens of American servicemen. However, Iran said time and again that the ultimate revenge for the assassination of General Soleimani would be far more important than a missile strike on a U.S. base. It would be the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. Ayatollah Khamenei said the missile strike on the American airbase of Ain al-Asad was another slap on the face of America.

But the tougher slap, the Leader said, would be the soft victory over the superficial hegemony of arrogance and the expulsion of the Americas from the region. The former needs the determination of our young revolutionaries and devoted elites, and the latter needs the determination of all nations and the resistance policies, the Leader pointed out. Ayatollah Khamenei stated, “Millions attending Martyrs Soleimani and Abu Mahdi’s funerals in Iraq and Iran was the first severe slap to the U.S. But the worse one is overcoming the hegemony of arrogance and expelling the U.S. from the region. Of course, revenge will be taken on those who ordered it and the murderers.”

He added, “Martyr Soleimani defeated the front of arrogance both during his life and with his martyrdom. The U.S. president said they spent $7 trillion in the region without achieving anything. The U.S. failed to achieve its goals in Syria and Iraq. The hero behind this major task is General Soleimani.” The Leader called the assassination of General Soleimani a “historic incident.” “The martyrdom of General Soleimani is a historic incident. He is a national hero for Iranians and the Islamic nation. That's why Iranians from different backgrounds - even those least expected - honor him. He was the one who promoted the model of Resistance among Islamic nations,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, according to the

He also addressed the issue of taking revenge for the assassination of General Soleimani, saying that this revenge is surely going to happen. “Those who ordered the murder of General Soleimani, as well as those who carried this out, should be punished. This revenge will certainly happen at the right time,” the Leader said.

 ‘Iran should become strong in all areas’: In his remarks, Ayatollah Khamenei also gave the Iranian officials a set of advices that if implemented, would make Iran immune to foreign pressure. The first advice is that Iran should become strong in all areas, including in the defense, science and technology sectors. “Because as long as we are not strong the enemies will continue to commit aggressions against [us.],” the Leader said. The second advice is that Iranian officials must not trust the enemies. “My definite advice is that do not trust the enemy. Do not trust the promises of the enemy to resolve the people’s problems and build the country’s future. Because these are not the promises of good people. Rather they are the promises of the villains.

You should not forget enmities. You saw what Trump’s America and Obama’s America did to you. Hostilities aren't particular to Trump for them to end with him going. Obama’s America also did bad things to you and the Iranian nation,” the Leader said, noting that the Europeans also did not comply with their commitments towards Iran. “The three European countries have displayed utter malice and duplicity too,” Ayatollah Khamenei noted. Over the past few weeks, tensions between Iran and the three European countries – France, Germany and the UK (E3) – that are signatory to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have sharply worsened after they called for new negotiations with Iran on the nuclear and non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s defensive missile program and its regional influence.

Following the U.S. election, the E3 foreign ministers held a trilateral meeting in Germany to coordinate their positions on Iran. After the meeting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas made remarks that were indicative of a possibly new European policy toward Iran. “A return to the previous agreement will not suffice anyway. There will have to be a kind of ‘nuclear agreement plus,’ which is also in our interest. We have clear expectations of Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile program that threatens the entire region. Iran also needs to play a different role in the region,” Maas said in an interview with the German magazine, Der Spiegel. He added, “We need this agreement precisely because we distrust Iran. I have already coordinated with my French and British counterparts on this.”

The Leader responded to the E3 calls for missile and regional talks, saying the Europeans had no right to call for such negotiations. “The Europeans are constantly taking stances against Iran. While they are making the most improper interferences in the region’s issues, they tell us not to interfere in the region. And while France and Britain possess destructive nuclear missiles and Germany is moving in this direction, they tell us not to possess missiles,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a recent meeting with high-ranking officials. Directly addressing the Europeans, the Leader added, “What business is it of yours. Correct yourself first and then make remarks.”

During his Wednesday meeting, Ayatollah Khamenei called on Iranian officials to refrain from pinning hope on the lifting of sanctions and, instead, work to nullify the sanctions. “Lifting sanctions is in the enemy's hands. Nullifying them is in ours. We should work more on nullifying than removing them. I don't say we shouldn't pursue removing sanctions. But sanctions that were supposed to be lifted according to the JCPOA, 4 years ago, have intensified,” he said. This is the second time in less than a month that the Leader underlines the need to nullify the U.S. sanctions on Iran rather than removing them. In late November, he said that Iran had tried to remove the sanctions but they were not removed.

“There are two ways to tackle sanctions: 1) removing sanctions 2) nullifying and overcoming them. We tried the first option, removing sanctions, by negotiating for a few years, but to no use. The second option may have difficulties in the beginning but will have a favorable end,” the Leader pointed out in November. “If succeed, through hard work and innovation, in overcoming the sanctions and the other side witnesses how sanctions were nullified, it will abandon sanctions gradually.”