Biden plans renewed nuclear talks with Russia while punishing Kremlin, adviser says

In this photo taken on March 10, 2011, Russian PM Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with then US Vice-President Joe Biden during a meeting in Moscow.
In this photo taken on March 10, 2011, Russian PM Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with then US Vice-President Joe Biden during a meeting in Moscow.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President-elect Joe Biden's incoming national security adviser said on Sunday (Jan 3) that the new administration would move quickly to renew the last remaining major nuclear arms treaty with Russia, even while seeking to make President Vladimir Putin pay for what appeared to be the largest-ever hacking of United States government networks.

In an interview on GPS on CNN, Mr Jake Sullivan, who at 44 will become the youngest national security adviser in more than a half century, also said that as soon as Iran re-entered compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal - which he helped negotiate under then President Barack Obama - there would be a "follow-on negotiation" over its missile capabilities.

"In that broader negotiation, we can ultimately secure limits on Iran's ballistic missile technology," Mr Sullivan said. "And that is what we intend to try to pursue through diplomacy."

He did not mention that missiles were not covered in the previous accord because the Iranians refused to commit to any limitations on their development or testing. To bridge the impasse, the United Nations passed a weakly worded resolution that called on Teheran to show restraint; the Iranians say it is not binding, and they have ignored it.

Taken together, Mr Sullivan's two statements indicated how quickly the new administration would be immersed in two complex arms control issues, even as Mr Biden seeks to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic shocks it has caused.

But the first issue to arise, renewing the New Start, will be made more complex because of Mr Biden's vow to assure that Moscow pays for the hacking of more than 250 US government and private networks, an intrusion that now appears far more extensive than first thought.

Mr Biden has said that after the government formally determines who was responsible for the attack, "we will respond, and probably respond in kind".

But that means moving to punish Russia while keeping New Start - a remnant of the era when nuclear rather than cyber was the dominant issue between the two countries - from lapsing and setting off a new arms race.

Mr Sullivan cited arms control as one of the few areas where Moscow and the new administration could cooperate. Extending the treaty, which would not require Senate action, would be the first test of whether that cooperation is possible.

President Donald Trump, who withdrew from several other treaties with Russia over the past four years, had initially insisted that China also join the bilateral agreement, or the US would not renew it when it expires on Feb 5.

He later backed away from that demand. But in the weeks before the presidential election, negotiations over extending the agreement lost momentum, either because of new US demands or because the Russians concluded that Mr Trump was likely to lose.

"We will have to look at extending that treaty in the interest of the United States," Mr Sullivan said.

There have been no discussions between Mr Biden's representatives and the Russians about the treaty, transition officials said, because of what Mr Sullivan referred to as the tradition of "one president at a time".

Conversations four years ago between the Russian ambassador to the United States and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Mr Trump's first national security adviser, led to the initial investigations of the administration's dealings with Russia.

Mr Biden's team said it was scrupulously avoiding contact with foreigners on any issue of significance until the afternoon of Jan 20.

The idea of moving forward with a separate agreement with Iran on missiles is not new, but Mr Trump made no effort to negotiate any limits after pulling the United States out of the nuclear accord in mid-2018.

Mr Sullivan and Mr Daniel Benaim, who was a Middle East adviser to Mr Biden when he was vice-president, argued in a Foreign Affairs article in May that the United States should, under a new president, "immediately re-establish nuclear diplomacy with Iran and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal," and then work with allies and Iran "to negotiate a follow-on agreement."

At the same time, the United States would support what they called a "regional track" of negotiations that would include Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival in the region, and one of the main targets of its missile programme.

Any effort to resuscitate the Iran deal will undoubtedly open a new breach with Republicans, who have already argued that Mr Biden was tied to a flawed nuclear accord. But the deal was never a treaty - it was an executive agreement, which Mr Trump abandoned by declaration - and its restoration could also be done by executive order.

The key question is whether the Iranians are willing to go back to the old deal. It was widely unpopular in the country, where many believed that the United States never intended to allow Teheran to enjoy its economic benefits.

And Iran is about to plunge into a presidential election of its own, in which a hardline Air Force officer from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is one of the leading candidates.

Reentering the limits of the existing deal, without extracting some kind of reparations from the United States for Mr Trump's decision to reimpose sanctions, may be politically impossible before the election.

When pressed by his interviewer, Mr Fareed Zakaria, on why the 2015 deal did not bring about an easing of tensions and new cooperation with Iran, Mr Sullivan rejected the idea that the Obama administration had expectations beyond limiting the nuclear programme.

"It's not like we went into this thinking, hey, we'll get the nuclear issue plus, we'll just assume Iran changes its behaviour overnight," he said. "We did believe that if you had the Iranian nuclear program in a box, you could then begin to chip away at some of these other issues."

But it was Mr Obama's bet, in 2015, that if the nuclear issue was off the table and Iran had new leadership - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, is 81 - a broader accord could be reached. "Obviously, that did not come to pass," Mr Sullivan said.