Skip to content
The Morning Dispatch: Iran Talks Begin
Go to my account

The Morning Dispatch: Iran Talks Begin

Plus: The CDC's slowly evolving recommendations for the vaccinated.

Happy Wednesday! If your March Madness bracket ranked 47th or higher in the TMD bracket pool (there were some ties, that’s 51 people total) and you want to claim your prize, please send an email to members@thedispatch.com with “MARCH MADNESS” in the subject line, and include the ESPN account name you used (example below). We’ll be in touch with more details from there.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States kicked off indirect talks with Iran in Vienna on Tuesday, paving the way for the restoration of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. The two countries’ leaders will not convene in the same room, relying instead on mediators from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.

  • President Joe Biden pledged on Tuesday that all Americans 18 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine by April 19, moving his administration’s original May 1 goal up by nearly two weeks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.7 percent of American adults have received at least one vaccine dose, and 24.4 percent are fully vaccinated. Among senior citizens 65 and up, 56.6 percent are fully vaccinated.

  • North Korea, citing concerns over the pandemic, became the first country to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics set to kick off in July.

  • Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government following the country’s latest round of inconclusive elections. Netanyahu—on trial for corruption charges—will have six weeks to create a workable coalition. 

  • Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida died at the age of 84 following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Hastings spent a decade as a federal judge before being impeached for bribery and perjury, and went on to serve in the House of Representatives from 1993 through this week. Hastings’ death further diminishes Democrats’ House majority, which will stand at just 218-212 after Republican Julia Letlow is sworn in next week.

  • The United States confirmed 61,510 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 4.2 percent of the 1,449,791 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 912 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 556,509. According to the CDC, 33,901 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 1,404,280 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 108,301,234 Americans having now received at least one dose.

U.S and Iran Kickstart Indirect Nuclear Talks 

Iran, the U.S., and a handful of European go-betweens convened in Vienna, Austria on Tuesday to take steps toward reviving the JCPOA, from which former President Trump withdrew the United States in 2018. Yesterday’s discussions came nearly seven weeks after the Biden administration’s initial push to formally restart negotiations with Tehran.

The Iranians have refused to speak directly to U.S. officials, so the talks—which are expected to continue later this week—were mediated by other signatories of the 2015 agreement, including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Under the leadership of the European Union, the parties said Tuesday that negotiations will proceed through two working groups: One will urge Iran’s compliance with strict limitations on its nuclear program, the other will encourage the U.S. to lift the rigorous sanctions regime imposed on Iran by the Trump administration.

Though U.S. and Iranian diplomats did not speak directly to one another, special envoy to Iran Robert Malley is leading the U.S. delegation from a Vienna hotel. Malley—who served as a head negotiator for the first iteration of the JCPOA—told NPR ahead of negotiations that the status quo cannot stand, pointing to Tehran’s increased uranium enrichment and restrictions on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight. “We’ve seen the results of the maximum pressure campaign,” he argued. “It has failed.”

The establishment of working groups could be viewed as a sign negotiations are proceeding apace, but Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov cautioned against expecting a sudden breakthrough. “The restoration of #JCPOA will not happen immediately,” he tweeted yesterday. “It will take some time. How long? Nobody knows. The most important thing after [today’s] meeting of the Joint Commission is that practical work towards achieving this goal has started.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed those sentiments in a press briefing yesterday. “These are early days; we don’t anticipate any immediate breakthrough,” he told reporters. “We know these will be tough talks. We know there will be difficult discussions ahead. But again, this is a healthy step forward.”

As it stands, the United States and Iran are stuck in a game of chicken over which country will move toward compliance with the deal’s terms first. Whereas Iranian officials say they won’t come to the negotiating table until all U.S. sanctions are lifted, the Biden administration says sanctions relief won’t be awarded until Iran promises to scale back uranium enrichment and abide by international inspections of its nuclear facilities. (Tehran has repeatedly violated JCPOA nuclear protocols following the United States’ 2018 departure from the agreement.)

“Our demand and condition is that the U.S. first meets all its JCPOA commitments and lifts all the imposed sanctions. Then Iran will verify and return to its commitments,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi told state television on Sunday, before the Vienna talks. “We don’t have any step-by-step plan, nor do we accept one. … There is only one step, whereby the U.S. should remove all the sanctions under the Trump tenure. Then we verify and return to our obligations.” 

Iranian spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters on Tuesday that Tehran is “not optimistic or pessimistic” about the negotiations. “But we are confident that we are on the right track,” he added. “And if America’s will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement and ultimately its full implementation.”

International onlookers speculate that the Biden administration wants to make progress on reviving the old agreement ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June, on the off chance that the country ends up electing a president less open to diplomacy with the United States.

But not everyone is so eager to rush back into the old agreement, which extended about $55 billion in sanctions relief to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. “I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry conceded after the deal went into effect. 

Other critics argue that the deal contained vital concessions allowing Tehran to nuclearize in the longer term, and legitimized its violations of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory. In its 2015 form, the JCPOA allowed Iran to enrich uranium to 3.67 percent and maintain localized centrifuges—neither of which are necessary for a nuclear power program—and was designed to be gradually decommissioned over time. 

As the regime pushes toward 20 percent uranium purity—well beyond the deal’s limits and a meaningful step toward weaponization—the U.S. needs a guarantee that Tehran would abide by the letter of the agreement if sanctions are lifted.

Jason Brodsky, a senior analyst at Iran International and former policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, warned that rushing a return to the 2015 deal in its current form could be unwise given existing incentive structures. “In Washington it’s often said: ‘President Biden made a commitment during the campaign to rejoin the nuclear deal,’” Brodsky noted. “Yeah, he did—but he also made another second commitment to use it as a platform to negotiate a longer and stronger deal. And it’s that last piece that is the most important part here because it’s crucial to reassuring U.S. allies and partners in the region and to Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are understandably watching this very warily.”

I’m Vaccinated. Now What?

The Great American Vaccination Drive continues to pick up steam, with an average of more than 3 million Americans now getting a shot every day. Nearly a quarter of the adult population has been fully vaccinated—a significant public health victory, particularly given that the immunized are, generally speaking, those at the highest risk of severe COVID illness or death.

For the most part, however, federal guidance for what the vaccinated can do with their shiny new pandemic immunity has continued to err on the side of caution. CDC recommendations permit an increasing number of private-space activities for the vaccinated, including maskless, non-distanced visits with other vaccinated people or with single households of unvaccinated people who are at low risk for severe COVID-19. But the CDC continues to recommend—and a majority of states still require—that vaccinated people practice social distancing and masking while in public.

For a while, the rationale for this was straightforward: There was still much we didn’t know about the exact nature of the immunity the vaccine bestowed. We understood from clinical trials that all the vaccine candidates offered protection against symptomatic disease, and even stronger protection against hospitalization and/or death. But there was always the chance that vaccination didn’t prevent infection with the virus. In other words, it was theoretically possible that vaccine-empowered immune systems were killing the virus well enough to prevent sickness, but not so well as to prevent all viral incubation and possible transmission to others.

A growing heap of evidence, however, has begun to suggest that’s not happening either—or at least not most of the time. Last week, a CDC report on preliminary transmission data found that a full course of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine provided 90 percent effectiveness against any infection, symptomatic or no.

“These findings indicate that authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are effective for preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection, regardless of symptom status, among working-age adults in real-world conditions,” the report reads. “COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all eligible persons.”

President Biden’s new CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, received some criticism from scientists after slightly overstating these findings last week: “Our data from the CDC today suggests that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick,” she told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “And that’s not just in the clinical trials, it’s also in real-world data.” Critics pointed out, and the CDC later acknowledged, that there’s a difference between what’s infrequent and what’s impossible. But it remains true that, for the vast majority of people, vaccination doesn’t just mean you won’t get COVID—it means you won’t give it to others, either.

Of course, that can make carrying on with public health guidelines—already a chore many of us are sick of—an extra-frustrating experience for the fully vaccinated, particularly conservatives who are dispositionally opposed to doing things just because the government says they should. Still, public health experts insist that easing out of pandemic restrictions slowly once vaccinated is, generally speaking, the prudent thing to do. In addition to that 10-percent gray area of possible vaccinated infection, there are also outstanding questions about whether certain COVID variants could slip through the cracks.

“It’s a really delicate thing, where we have many more things that we don’t know than we know,” Dr. Claudia Parvanta, a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and expert on public health messaging, told The Dispatch. “The idea that really comes into play … we don’t know everything about a situation. We have to tell you, ‘We are concerned about these things. This is what we know. This is what we don’t know.’ And we’re going to give you the best guidance possible at this moment. And you have to understand that we are in the process of gathering as much information as possible about these unknowns. That’s the situation that they’re in, so the best they can do is say, look, this is what it looks like based on our best predictive models.”

And, of course, as a matter of policy, there are only two alternatives to vaccinated people continuing to endure some anti-COVID restrictions in public spaces: Either taking the restrictions off for everyone—a risky proposition while case counts remain high—or creating a two-tiered system where vaccinated people have more access to public spaces than unvaccinated ones. Such “vaccine passports” are highly controversial and opposed even by some public health experts, who worry that they could entrench some holdouts’ opposition to getting the vaccine by making them feel as though it was foisted upon them.

The bottom line: The restrictions on vaccinated people may be coming down irritatingly slowly, but they are coming down.

“Once you’re vaccinated, nobody’s telling you to stay home and do exactly the same stuff you’ve done for the last year,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and health policy professor at Brown University, told The Dispatch. “The whole point of the vaccine is that the world starts to open up. … The message is not that you have to stay isolated, that you cannot go unmasked. It’s rather just to be smart about it and choose things that are not as likely to be exposing you to unvaccinated people who are infected.”

Worth Your Time

  • Readers old enough to remember the 2012 election likely also remember the GOP’s “autopsy report” published soon afterward, assessing what went wrong and how the party could address its shortfalls going forward. Republicans lost again in 2020, but there’s been no formal effort by the RNC to embark on a similar undertaking. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon Jr. offers a few possible explanations for why that’s the case. The simplest reason, he argues, is that most who remain in the party are generally fine with the GOP’s direction. “The Republican Party has an activist base whose interests aren’t that compatible with pursuing a strategy that maximizes winning national elections,” he writes. “It is hard to see Republicans changing course, even if a meaningful minority of voters in the party wants changes, without some elite institutions and powerful people in the party pushing a new vision. And it’s hard to see real anti-Trumpism forces emerging in the GOP right now.”

  • The Biden administration is attempting to render its massive infrastructure package more palatable by paying for it with higher taxes on corporations rather than individuals. But as Ryan Young points out in a piece for National Review, all taxes are paid by people in one way or another. “Companies pass on their costs. Some of the tax is paid by consumers, who pay higher prices. Company employees pay some of the tax through lower wages. And investors’ retirement accounts pay some of the tax through lower returns,” he writes. “If lawmakers want something funded, they should tax people directly, so we can better see the connection between what we pay to the government and what we get from it in return.”

  • We’ve been pretty critical of the hyperbolic response to Georgia’s new voting law in recent days, but here’s one of the more thoughtful pieces you’ll read from the other side of the debate. “It is true that the ‘yes’ argument of President Biden and other Democrats [that the law is akin to Jim Crow] overstates similarities and greatly understates key differences,” Jamelle Bouie writes in the New York Times. “But the ‘no’ argument of conservatives and Republicans asks us to ignore context and extend good faith to lawmakers who overhauled their state’s election laws because their party lost an election. … The problem with the ‘no’ argument here is that it mistakes both the nature and the operation of Jim Crow voting laws. There was no statute that said, ‘Black people cannot vote.’ Instead, Southern lawmakers spun a web of restrictions and regulations meant to catch most Blacks (as well as many whites) and keep them out of the electorate.”

Presented Without Comment

https://twitter.com/lachlan/status/1379511885020721153

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s edition of The Sweep, Sarah dives into the benefits of “paid press releases,” some primary challenges in the House, and the 2024 race for the GOP nomination. Stick around for Chris Stirewalt’s take on Georgia’s voting law and the MLB All-Star Game, and Audrey’s profile of Pete Snyder, a Republican candidate in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

  • The wait is over: Former GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman joined Jonah on the latest episode of The Remnant for a conversation about Riggleman’s critiques of the Republican Party, his views on the primary system and the House Freedom Caucus, and yes, Bigfoot.

  • After David and his wife Nancy published their bombshell piece on Kamp Kanakuk last week—labeling what happened there “the worst Christian sex abuse scandal you’ve never heard of”—the president of Kanakuk Ministries sent a letter to families dismissing the report as “inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading.” It wasn’t. So David followed up in his Tuesday French Press. “There was a reason why Kanakuk used the phrase ‘overwhelming majority’ to describe the alleged amount of cooperation with victims,” he writes, responding to the letter. “The cooperation wasn’t universal. In at least one case Kanakuk tried to force a victim and his family to sign an agreement against their will, and they sought to punish the family with thousands of dollars in fines when they refused to agree to Kanakuk’s terms. We’ve obtained documents that illustrate the very ‘hardball’ the victims warned us against.”

Let Us Know

If you’re vaccinated (fully or partially) how much of your pre-pandemic life have you resumed? How much do you expect to resume? In-person dining? Movie theaters? Working at an office? Making out with strangers? Air travel? Cruises?

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).