U.S., Iran Both Lean on Europe As Iraq Attack Sharpens Nuclear Deal Standoff

President Joe Biden vowed to revitalize American alliances and put diplomacy back at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, repairing the damage he and his allies said was done to American global leadership under former President Donald Trump.

These alliances, Biden says, are the key to lasting foreign policy achievements, whether on climate change, ending long-running conflicts, or reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and preventing Iran from developing atomic weapons.

This week, Biden's team has focused their attention on America's European allies, particularly the so-called E3 nations—Germany, France, and the U.K.—as the White House navigates its diplomatic standoff with Tehran over who will make the first move back into compliance with the JCPOA.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his E3 counterparts in Paris to build a united front on the Iran deal, and convince them that the era of Trump's unilateral "maximum pressure" strategy is over.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders have also been pushing the European signatories of the JCPOA to convince the Biden administration that relief from Trump's sanctions is the only way to convince Iran to scale back its nuclear program in line with the nuclear deal's restrictions.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, urging the veteran leader to support Tehran's continued effort to have "inhumane" American sanctions lifted.

"The JCPOA, as a document approved by the UN Security Council and a product of sustained efforts by Iran and six major countries in the world, has a clear framework and cannot be changed," Rouhani told Merkel, according to the president's office, as reported by the Tasnim News Agency.

Iran began moving away from the nuclear deal after Trump withdrew from it in May 2018. Tehran then announced it would no longer abide by any of its restrictions after the U.S. assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

Following the assassination—reportedly by Israel—of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November, the Iranian parliament passed new measures ordering the country's atomic energy agency to expand enriched uranium production. Lawmakers also ordered the agency to block international inspectors from nuclear facilities unless U.S. sanctions were lifted by February 21.

Rouhani told Merkel his government still wishes to scale back its nuclear activity in line with the JCPOA, but only if American sanctions are lifted first.

Merkel's spokesperson Steffen Seibert said in a statement that the chancellor "expressed her concern that Iran continues to fail to meet its obligations under the nuclear agreement." Seibert said it was now "time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution."

This diplomatic solution will be Blinken's focus in Paris on Thursday. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that the Biden administration is still open to a diplomatic thaw with Tehran, even as American and Iraqi officials investigate this week's deadly rocket attack on an Iraqi airbase hosting U.S. troops, claimed by an Iran-linked militia.

"If Iran resumes its full compliance with the deal, we will do the same," Price said, noting the administration eventually wants to broaden the deal to put limits on Iran's ballistic missile program and its use of regional militias. "The path for diplomacy remains there. We hope to be able to pursue it together with our allies and partners."

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Wednesday that Biden's failure to lift sanctions makes his administration no different from Trump's. "It has been a month now that the Biden administration has been continuing Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy of lawlessness, one-upmanship, and bullying," Zarif said in Tehran.

Asked Wednesday how Biden's administration differs from its predecessor, Price replied: "I think what I would point to that distinguishes our approach in the context of Iran, but also in the context of just about any other challenge we face, is that we understand that we need to bring our allies and partners along with us."

"The secretary, the president of the United States, others in this administration—to include the Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley—they have spent the past few weeks working the phones, working the [video teleconferencing], ensuring that we are addressing this challenge in lockstep with our allies and partners," Price added. "We know that for every challenge we face, our partners and our allies are going to be force multipliers."

But the Biden administration will need to juggle its diplomatic drive with an expected retaliation for this week's rocket attack in Iraq. One civilian contractor was killed and several Americans wounded in the strike near Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was claimed by the Iran-linked Shi'ite Guardians of Blood militia.

Price said that the investigation is still ongoing, though anonymous U.S. and Iraqi officials have pointed to direct Iranian involvement. "I think it is also safe to say that, of course, we're not going to preview a response, but it is fair to say that there will be consequences for any group responsible for this attack," Price said.

Damage after deadly Erbil Iraq rocket attack
A man inspects the damage on February 16, 2021 following a rocket attack the previous night in Erbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images/Getty