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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Courts Iran
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Courts Iran

Despite ongoing provocations, the White House attempts to cajole Tehran back into JCPOA compliance.

Happy Monday! Be grateful that a bunch of plane debris didn’t fall from the sky and burst through your kitchen ceiling over the weekend while you were making your daughter a sandwich.

Unless, of course, you are that man in Broomfield, Colorado. If so: We’re glad you and your family are safe, and thank you for being a member of The Dispatch

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A preliminary report from Pfizer, BioNTech, and Israel’s Health Ministry found the companies’ COVID-19 vaccine was not only 99 percent effective at preventing death from SARS-CoV-2, but 89 percent effective at preventing infections as well. The data are not yet peer-reviewed, but would indicate that the vaccine blocks most asymptomatic transmission of the virus.

  • President Joe Biden over the weekend issued a major disaster declaration for Texas, granting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s request for federal public assistance in all 254 counties in the state and individual assistance in 77 counties. Power has been restored for most Texans—and Houston lifted its boil-water advisory yesterday—but millions continue to deal with the aftermath of last week’s storms.

  • Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced Friday he will vote against confirming Neera Tanden, President Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. The move throws Tanden’s confirmation into question, as she will now need support from at least one Republican.

  • The United States confirmed 57,819 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 4.8 percent of the 1,199,359 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,305 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 498,879. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 56,159 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1,801,134 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 63,090,634.

Biden to Pursue Diplomacy with Iran

The Biden administration has signaled its eagerness to reengage with Iran on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-era nuclear deal that President Trump unilaterally abandoned in 2018, despite continuing provocation from the longtime U.S. enemy.

In recent days: a) international inspectors have found evidence of illicit nuclear activity at two sites not declared by Iran as involved in the country’s past nuclear weapons programs and Iranian officials have provided “implausible answers” about the presence of uranium at the sites, engaging in what diplomats described to Reuters as “typical delaying tactics;” b) Iran has continued its detention of U.S. citizens and dual nationals, a practice condemned yesterday by Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, as an “utter outrage;” c) an Iranian-backed militia has claimed responsibility for rocket attacks that injured several Americans last week in northern Iraq, leading a State Department spokesman to promise “consequences for any group responsible.”

Despite this provocative behavior, the Biden administration announced late last week its willingness to discuss “a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program,” in the words of State Department spokesman Ned Price. The comments came hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a video call on the subject with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

“The E3 and the United States affirmed their shared objective of Iran’s return to full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA,” a joint statement from the leaders read. “Secretary Blinken reiterated that, as President Biden has said, if Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.”

A senior State Department official told reporters last week that the U.S. will ease some of the domestic travel restrictions the Trump administration placed on Iranian diplomats—a move that had effectively confined them to the United Nations headquarters in New York. But Tehran wants more before returning to the table.

“The United States must return to the deal and lift all sanctions,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday. “The United States is addicted to sanctions, but they should know that Iran will not yield to pressure.” 

The Biden administration made clear its willingness to look past Iran’s troubling behavior as it seeks to reengage diplomatically. “[Biden] is prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program. That offer still stands because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it,” Jake Sullivan told CBS News yesterday, adding that the administration is “determined” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. “The script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States. And the ball is in their court.”

After the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed strict sanctions on Tehran, Iran began enriching uranium once again at a level higher than the deal’s restrictions allow. By June 2020, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found the country to be in violation of most of the deal’s requirements. Last December, the Iranian parliament passed a law making clear that unless sanctions were removed, Tehran would begin limiting IAEA inspection access to nuclear sites on February 23—tomorrow.

Tehran, however, seems to have backed off a bit from that threat. The UN’s nuclear chief Rafael Grossi said Sunday that the IAEA had “stabilize[d] a situation which was very unstable,” reaching a “technical understanding” with Iran in which the watchdog agency will be able to continue monitoring the country’s nuclear sites for up to three months—essentially buying time for JCPOA negotiations to be hammered out.

After Tuesday, however, UN snap inspections and camera surveillance will no longer be permitted at Iranian nuclear facilities. The disruption in regular inspections means that Iran can continue enriching its uranium beyond 20 percent purity, which is widely considered just short of nuclear weapons-grade fuel.

The Biden administration’s Thursday overture came just days after a rocket attack in the Kurdish region of Iraq targeted U.S.-led coalition forces, killing one non-American civilian contractor and injuring nine others (including five Americans). A spokesman for Tehran’s foreign ministry on Tuesday denied any Iranian involvement in the attack, but an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia, Saraya Awliya al-Dam, has since claimed responsibility. The New York Times reported that while officials haven’t publicly assigned blame, they attribute the attack to “an Iranian-backed militia.” Blinken, according to a spokesman, spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Tuesday to discuss efforts to “identify and hold accountable the groups responsible” for the rockets.

Republicans in Congress have long been critical of Biden’s desire to return to the JCPOA. The administration’s willingness to resume negotiations so shortly after the Erbil strike has amplified their frustration.

“The Biden Administration’s posture toward Iran is nothing short of reckless,” Sen. Marco Rubio, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Friday. “Not long after Iranian-backed forces attacked Americans in Iraq, President Biden is desperately trying to re-enter a failed deal and provide sanctions relief to the Iranian regime.”

“It is concerning the Biden administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The Trump administration created leverage for President Biden on Iran—we should not squander that progress.”

Worth Your Time

  • The Department of Justice announced on Saturday that 95-year-old Tennessee resident Friedrich Karl Berger had been deported to Germany. The reason? He served as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. Berger’s story first came to light last year, when DOJ prosecutors brought the case before a federal judge. “It is perhaps fitting that the decades-long search for Nazi collaborators living on United States soil may have reached its conclusion—or something close to it—in a small city, in an unremarkable ranch house on an equally unremarkable cul-de-sac,” Rick Rojas and Richard Fausset wrote at the time. The investigation into Berger “was aided by a kind of miracle: a set of SS cards that identified guards in the Neuengamme camps, discovered in 1950 in a German ship that had been sunk by the Allies five years earlier.”

  • Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has attempted to downplay its own role in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and deflect blame elsewhere. The Communist Party’s latest gambit? The virus didn’t actually originate in Wuhan—it was imported there from Europe via frozen food. Dr. Scott Gottlieb takes this theory to the woodshed in his latest Wall Street Journal column and heaps scorn on the World Health Organization for even humoring it. “More than 100 million cases of Covid have been diagnosed world-wide and, outside China, not a single case has been traced to food or food packaging,” he writes. “The virus most likely emerged from nature, bouncing between animals and humans before it finally broke out. It’s also possible that the virus escaped from a lab where it was being studied. … The WHO team said the lab-escape theory is so remote that it doesn’t merit any further investigation. But frozen salmon does? By giving weight to the food theory, the WHO is making itself less credible, which is a pity.”

  • A young Republican policy wonk in DC recently wrote to David Brooks, asking if he’d made a mistake with his career choices, thinking that “government is not where vital, meaningful work will take place over the next decades.” Brooks used the man’s uncertainty as the basis of his most recent column. “Destiny has placed you, all of you young Republicans, at the crucial spot in the line. We either have two responsible political parties in this country or we do not. And it will be reforming Republicans, with your energies and ideas, that determine the outcome,” Brooks writes. “The party that moved from Theodore Roosevelt, to Calvin Coolidge to Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump is going to eventually move on once again. That future is waiting to be created. It’s not my struggle, and maybe it’s not your struggle. But it is certainly a noble way for the right people to spend their lives.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thomas Joscelyn joined Steve and Sarah on the Dispatch Podcast last week to talk all things foreign policy. Is it time to bring troops home from Afghanistan? Should the United States restart nuclear talks with Iran? Why aren’t government and corporate actors doing more to stop China’s genocide in Xingjiang?

  • In his Sunday French Press, David attempts to answer a question on the mind of many: “A person I love is deeply committed to conspiracies. What can I do?” It’s tricky: Conspiracy theories can provide believers a “sense of enduring purpose” and become a “source of community.” But David argues these conspiracies can be replaced by healthy relationships. “The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends.”

  • Jonah went full Jonah in his latest G-File, written from Terminal B of the Houston airport after days of trying to escape Texas. Coffee, barstools, the etymology of the “man bites dog” phrase—this “news”letter has it all.

  • In Friday’s Mop-Up, Sarah spoke with Stanford University’s Lanhee Chen—alum of four presidential campaigns—about the role policy does (or does not) play in elections today. “There is this push and pull that happens on a campaign between those who are thinking about how to communicate on policy, how to strategize about policy, and then the person responsible for keeping the campaign promises and the person responsible for formulating policy,” he said. “What I often tried to do was to identify for my colleagues, ‘here are the three or four most politically salient points that I would draw out from our policy.’ And that really helped to set the conversation in the right direction, as opposed to being reactive.”

Let Us Know

What’s the foreign policy issue that you care most about, and why?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).