US-Iran diplomatic madrigal begins with Nimitz withdrawal

New US president Joe Biden’s administration withdrew the USS Nimitz from the Gulf this week – but insisted that Washington had not changed its position on what is required from Iran in order to return to the nuclear deal agreed between the countries in 2015 when Biden was Vice President to Barack Obama. Within 24 hours of Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirming that the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group had sailed from the US military’s Central Command in the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific Command region, a counterpart in the Department of State was insisting that Tehran must make the first move before Washington would consider rejoining the pact. What promises to be an intricate diplomatic madrigal has begun.

Iranian President Hassan RouhaniAnd quite possibly a long one. While the Biden administration has expressed interest in reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from and initiated punishing sanctions, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reacted to the Nimitz’s withdrawal by insisting that the nuclear deal would remain unchanged with only the original signatories to the deal taking part in any talks. “If they [the US] want it, they can come join. If they don’t want it then they can go back to their own lives and we’ll go about our business,” he said.

Iran had barely started to reap the economic benefits from the 2015 deal when Trump withdrew from the agreement and imposed US sanctions on Iran so severe that they plunged the country into its worst economic crisis since the 1980s. In 2019, the IMF calculated that the Islamic Republic’s economy had shrunk by 7% after its GDP had grown by 12% three years earlier. Although the latest forecast indicates a zero growth rate for 2020, unemployment rates remain in double figures.

Along with a new face in the White House and the withdrawal of the USS Nimitz, Iran’s long-suffering citizens could be forgiven for taking some comfort and hope from two other recent developments.The first from The Hague, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this week cleared the way for a ruling against the US sanctions by rejecting US objections to the tribunal’s jurisdiction over those imposed during the Trump era.

US special envoy to Iran Robert MalleyThe second was the appointment of former Obama adviser Robert Malley as special envoy for Iran. Malley was heavily involved with the original negotiations with Iran in 2015, and until last month headed the International Crisis Group. An NGO devoted to preventing or defusing conflict. Before stepping down from the post last month, Malley published what amounts to a calibrated road map for negotiating with Tehran — an approach the Biden team now seems to want embrace.

When the music’s over …..