Biden will seek to reenter Iran nuclear deal within months, former aide says

Amos Hochstein tells Israeli TV rejoining the agreement is a top priority for the US-president elect; report says Trump planning flurry of sanctions to make move harder

By TOI STAFF8 November 2020, 10:40 pm  6Then US vice president Joe Biden, left, talks with then State Department special envoy for international energy affairs Amos Hochstein at a working lunch during the Caribbean Energy Security Summit, at the State Department in Washington, January 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/File)

A former senior aide to Joe Biden said rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was “high on his agenda” and that the US president-elect would move to do so shortly after taking office.

“I believe that in the first months [of Biden’s presidency], we’ll either see him rejoin the deal fully, or what I would call ‘JCPOA-minus,’ meaning lifting sanctions in exchange for suspending some of the Iranian nuclear programs [developed] in the past three years,” Amos Hochstein said Sunday in an interview in Hebrew with Channel 12 news.

Hochstein, who served at the State Department and oversaw energy sanctions on Iran during former president Barack Obama’s tenure, said Biden wants “some changes” to the pact clinched in 2015 — and abandoned by US President Donald Trump in 2018 — including its expiration date.

The comments came as an Israeli news site reported the Trump administration — in coordination with Israel and Arab states in the Persian Gulf — was planning a bevy of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran to make it more difficult for the incoming administration to reenter the nuclear deal, which was negotiated when Biden served as vice president under Obama.

Quoting Israeli and Arab sources, Walla news said US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliot Abrams is planning to announce a raft of fresh sanctions on Iran every week from now until January 20. These sanctions will reportedly target Iran’s missile program and its support for terrorist groups, as well as focus on its human rights violations, making it harder for Biden to roll back such punishments.

Abrams met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday and was expected to hold talks with other senior Israeli officials.

Elliott Abrams, US special representative for Iran and Venezuela, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 8, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

According to the report, Israel and Gulf states believe Biden will swiftly lift other sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program to restart diplomacy with Tehran, shedding some of the US’s leverage over the cash-strapped country. New sanctions, therefore, would keep up pressure on Tehran to compromise and likely keep Biden out of the international pact unless he lifts them.

“The goal is as many sanctions as possible by January 20,” an unnamed Israeli official was quoted as saying.

An Arab official involved in the negotiations told the news site, “The goal of the Trump administration is to impose sanctions that Biden cannot lift.”

Earlier Sunday, a senior minister in Netanyahu’s Likud party called for “dialogue with the new administration” to ensure that Biden does not reenter the pact under its previous terms.

Netanyahu has been a strident critic of the nuclear deal, arguing it did not put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from seeking nuclear weapons capabilities, and cheered Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord.

‘Bring back the Palestinian issue’

In his Channel 12 interview, Hochstein also spoke to the Palestinian issue, saying Biden “sees the two-state solution as preferable to one state. And his fear is that if there is no two-state solution, in the end, it will lead to a binational state.”

The Biden administration will “bring the Palestinian issue back to the heart of the discourse,” according to Hochstein.

Trump unveiled a peace plan in January that envisioned a Palestinian state in some 70 percent of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and some neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The plan was rejected by the Palestinian Authority, which has boycotted the Trump administration since its 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Then-US vice president Joseph Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wave to the press ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 10, 2010. (AP Photo/ Tara Todras-Whitehill)

An unnamed senior official in PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s office was quoted as saying by the Israel Hayom daily on Sunday that Ramallah has sent Biden messages that the PA would be willing to resume US-brokered peace negotiations with Israel, but only from the point where they were halted in 2016 under Obama.

The official added that Abbas will demand that Biden immediately return the US embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, reversing a move Trump made in 2018, and undo Trump’s recognition of the Israeli capital.

Biden has previously said that while he plans to take a more evenhanded approach to the Middle East conflict than his predecessor, he will not overturn those decisions.

Hochstein also said he did not believe Netanyahu’s delay in congratulating Biden would affect relations.

“He’ll smile and move on,” he said of the president-elect

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