ROME – President Joe Biden opened new fronts in global engagement Saturday, endorsing international accords on taxation and vaccinations while joining key European allies to ramp up pressure on Iran to revive the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear program.
The Biden administration also announced during the annual Group of 20 summit that it had reached a deal with the European Union on resolving a bitter standoff over steel and aluminum imports imposed three years ago under President Donald Trump.
Taken together, the moves marked fresh efforts to turn away from Trump’s policies that included withdrawal from key international accords, a snub of the Iran nuclear deal and a range of protectionist trade measures.
Perhaps the most uncertain of the developments Saturday is the fate of the nuclear accord that set limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment and other advances in exchange for easing international sanctions. After Trump pulled out in 2018, Iran had announced higher-level enrichment – stirring alarm from the West and its allies – even as Tehran’s leaders insist they do not seek nuclear weapons but want to control nuclear fuel supply for reactors.
During the first full day of the G-20 summit in Rome, Biden met with leaders of the E3 countries – France, Germany and Britain – in an attempt to coordinate with other parties of the original agreement. Russia and China were also part of the accord.
In a statement, Biden and the E3 leaders said they felt it was possible to quickly reinstate the 2015 deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“We call upon [Iranian] President [Ebrahim] Raisi to seize this opportunity and return to a good-faith effort to conclude our negotiations as a matter of urgency,” said Biden along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson, the British prime minister. “That is the only sure way to avoid a dangerous escalation, which is not in any country’s interest.”
The meeting came at a precarious moment for the future of the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
After Biden campaigned on global re-engagement, the administration in April began negotiations to revive the talks. Yet dialogue was suspended in June after the election of Raisi, a hard-line cleric who nonetheless has indicated interest in restarting the negotiations.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri, said last week that Tehran was prepared to return to nuclear talks in Vienna by the end of November and that the precise date of the return would be announced soon. Though Iran has indicated it wanted to return to negotiations, it has dragged its feet in setting a date.
Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One on Thursday that the United States would have to “wait and see” whether Iran actually rejoined the negotiations.
“We think the clock is ticking,” Sullivan said in remarks en route to Rome. “It’s time for all of us to get back to the table and get this thing done.”
In brief remarks to reporters Saturday, Biden said simply that talks with Iran are “scheduled to resume.”
In advance of the summit, the Biden administration had downplayed expectations for Saturday’s meeting on Iran, with one senior official telling reporters that there would be no “deliverable” from the session. The idea for the U.S.-European meeting, the official said, came from Merkel, the outgoing chancellor, and was an opportunity for all four leaders to get in one room and candidly discuss how to revive the discussions.
As part of the first day of the summit – focused mainly on health and economic issues – Biden and other G-20 leaders also formalized an international tax accord that sets a 15% global minimum tax.
The pact seeks to reverse years of steady decline in rates paid by corporations around the world. It comes as the White House is trying to raise revenue from corporations at home to finance its sweeping social spending and climate package.
The administration also struck a deal with EU officials to lift some tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. In return, the European Union will drop their retaliatory tariffs on American goods. The European Union had been poised on Dec. 1 to boost tariffs to 50% on various U.S. products, including Harley-Davidson motorcycles and bourbon from Kentucky.
On the pandemic, the G-20 leaders also threw support behind a plan to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population by mid-2022, an ambitious target that will require wealthy nations to quickly address inequities with vaccine distribution and availability.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, kicking off the first in-person gathering among the G-20 leaders in two years, framed the problem as “morally unacceptable.”
Addressing the other leaders at an oval-shaped table, he said both the pandemic and climate change – the topic for Sunday – were issues requiring international cooperation. Without referring to Trump, Draghi critiqued a wave of “protectionism, unilateralism, nationalism” that had made it harder to address shared problems.
“We must rekindle the spirit that led to the creation of this group,” Draghi said.
During a plenary on the economy with other leaders, Biden stressed that while the countries may not see eye-to-eye on all matters, global challenges and shared interests should be handled together, according to a senior administration official and a G-20 official who took notes during the closed-door session.
Biden also urged other world leaders to strengthen global public health systems because new pandemics can surface at “any time,” the senior administration official said.
Many health experts say wealthy governments’ initial pandemic response – to heavily prioritize their own citizens – is now complicating the pandemic
An Italian government summary of the Saturday G-20 session suggested leaders broadly agreed about the dangers of the prolonged inequity.
But in poorer nations, particularly across Africa, there is skepticism about how ready wealthy nations are to follow through on their words. The People’s Vaccine, an alliance that includes Oxfam and Amnesty International, said this month that of 1.8 billion vaccines promised by rich nations, only 14% had been delivered.
The United States has shipped out nearly 200 million doses, according to the Global Health Institute – the highest donation level in the world. But it has also pledged another 1 billion doses that have yet to be given.
Covax, a World Health Organization-backed initiative for distributing vaccines, had indicated last month that it would not reach its goal of delivering 2 billion shots to low- and middle-income countries by the end of the year, cutting its target by 30%.
In a bilateral meeting after Saturday’s formal group meeting, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi told Draghi that Covax was a good idea in theory, but it was not working in practice, according to one G-20 official with direct knowledge of the conversation.
But Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said in a phone interview that the steps had so far been unacceptable – and criticized some wealthy nations for resisting waiving intellectual property patents, a move that would allow more companies to easily develop vaccines.
Marriott called the current system “vaccine apartheid.”
“There has been an unacceptable complacency at this summit,” Marriott said. “We know disparities are prolonging this pandemic and the suffering.”