Destabilizing speculation

In Vienna, Biden’s team pulls out all the stops to save Iran nuclear deal

US President Joe Biden intends to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and with talks resuming in Vienna on Thursday after a week-long hiatus, his chief negotiator, Robert Malley, is starting to work out a sheet of road on how to get there.

Sources close to EU and US negotiators say Malley should offer Tehran a Goldilocks deal: just enough sanctions relief for Iran to return to the pact, but not to the point of leaving Biden vulnerable to attack hardliners. house, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions to Iran.

“So far, no specific sanctions have been discussed, only the outline of ways to build trust,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group (ICG), who was Malley’s senior adviser when this the latter was the head of the ICG. “What they’re doing this week is finalizing a list of measures on both sides to get back into compliance with the deal. The next step is to sequence them to allow both sides to save face. ”

It involves what a senior US official has described as the “laborious” process of separation and acceptance of removing or easing some of the sanctions former US President Donald Trump imposed as “poison pills” to ensure that the 2015 deal, which Trump rejected in 2018, could never be restored. These include more than 700 sanctions imposed outside of the nuclear pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which were imposed at the end of Trump’s tenure to ensure Iran’s isolation. and completely smash its economy.

As part of the “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration notably sanctioned the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Co. and the National Iranian Tanker Co. for financing state terrorism. The Trump team knew that even if the JCPOA were resurrected, such new sanctions would nullify the deal’s effects as these companies would be banned from international trade. Together, they oversee Iran’s oil industry, and the central bank controls most of Iran’s foreign exchange reserves and income from the country’s oil sales. And new energy revenues are what Iran demands the most if it is to return to compliance with the 2015 pact.

As the Trump administration well knew, it would be politically risky for Biden to lift these sanctions, as the Iranian central bank “is in fact responsible for allocating funds for Hezbollah and Hamas” and the other two companies “provide and ship oil for sale by [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps, ”which Trump designated as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019, said Brian O’Toole of the Atlantic Council.

Shortly before last November’s election, the Trump administration also sanctioned 18 Iranian banks in the same manner, crippling what was virtually the entire Iranian financial sector. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the move, amid the coronavirus health crisis, a “crime against humanity”.

“The US position is that it is ready to lift two broad categories of sanctions: those outlined in the JCPOA and those that have been relabeled” by Trump, said Vaez. “However, sanctions that are justified and not incompatible with the JCPOA, such as those that targeted human rights violators in Iran or those that sanctioned Iranians involved in cyber attacks against the United States, will remain in place.” Sanctions should only be lifted if Tehran stops violating the pact by increasing its enrichment levels and producing nuclear material that could be used for bombs, as it has done in recent months.

The optimal target date for the completion of the negotiations could be May 21, the deadline for expiry of the temporary agreement reached at the end of February with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, under which the UN nuclear inspection data will be kept exclusively by Iran for three months. If no return to the deal is negotiated by then, Tehran has said it will destroy the data, most likely torpedoing the nuclear deal.

“Everything is quite broad at the moment,” said a European diplomat familiar with the talks. And for now, all negotiations are being done indirectly: the main talks are led by the so-called E3 – Germany, France and the UK – who pass proposals on to Malley and the negotiating team. American in another room, since Tehran has insisted it will not speak directly with the Americans unless the nuclear deal is first restored.

Outside forces have also hampered progress, starting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vehemently opposes the 2015 deal and has never shown much willingness to listen to Biden. Ten years ago, Netanyahu embarrassed the then US Vice President when his extremist government announced it was expanding settlements outside Jerusalem as Biden traveled to promote talks with the outraged Palestinians. this advert.

Then, on Sunday, an explosion at Iran’s super-fortified nuclear power plant at Natanz – believed to have been a bomb planted by the Israelis – prompted Zarif to take revenge on the Zionists. Iran quickly retaliated by increasing its uranium enrichment from 20% purity to 60% potentially in breach of the agreements. Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Jerusalem at the time, and the attack appeared to mock Biden’s team’s relentless efforts to consult with Netanyahu from the start.

Tehran’s harsh rhetoric hasn’t helped matters either. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who has final say on the negotiations – on Wednesday warned the talks should not drag on and become “attritional,” and attacked the United States for seeking “to impose their own bad wishes” and Europeans for following the example of the United States.

Malley; his boss, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have certainly worked hard to convince Europeans. At Washington’s urging, E3 issued a statement on Wednesday condemning Iran’s move to spark enrichment, saying it was “particularly unfortunate given that they come at a time when all participants in the JCPOA and the United States have entered into substantive discussions ”.

In an e-mail, Iranian Ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi said that the fact that E3 criticized Iran’s decision but not Israel’s would only “cloud the mood” in Vienna. Privately, Iran maintains that Natanz’s attack strengthened its position, in particular by making Russia and China – two of the parties to the 2015 deal – more eager to push for sanctions relief against Tehran. If Moscow and Beijing push harder on getting relief out of sympathy for Iran, it could make things more difficult for the United States and E3.

But other experts say the Israeli attack could actually strengthen the US position – signaling to Tehran that the Iranians had better revert to the deal on US terms or the Israelis will end their nuclear ambitions anyway and that ‘they will not even benefit from sanctions relief.

“Ironically, this lengthens the time it will take for the Iranians to get closer to an escape. [nuclear] Said Dennis Ross, former diplomat and Middle East scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It also clearly shows the Iranians that they can continue to invest heavily in their nuclear program, but as they do, their efforts will continue to be disrupted.”

Still, Iran insists it won’t stop its provocations until all JCPOA sanctions are lifted first – arguing that it was Trump, not Tehran, that broke the deal and that this Americans are therefore the ones who should take the first step.

If and when the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA, it plans to “expand and strengthen” this pact, covering Iran’s militant activities and missile program in order to satisfy the hardliners of the Capitol in Jerusalem. . Some in Washington call it “JCPOA 2.0”, but it is still a long way off, with Tehran refusing to consider any discussion of a new pact.

There are many political pitfalls. If Biden is seen to be giving up on Iran too soon, he will face a backlash from extremists in the US Congress, including powerful Democrats. At the end of March, a bipartisan group of 43 senators, including Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate External Relations Committee; Senator Chris Coons; and 11 other Democrats – sent a letter to Biden calling for a broader strategy than the JCPOA that would address “Iran’s destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.”

Angering this group could cost Biden dear as he tries to win votes for his major national projects, especially his $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. “Biden is to some extent at an impasse because by July 4th the vote will take place on the American Jobs Act, his key national initiative,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment. for International Peace. “He’s going to need all the Democratic votes he can get. And some Democrats like Menendez and even Coons oppose a simple re-entry into the JCPOA. “

On the Iranian side, Tehran may want to put things on hold until the end of the June national elections because Khamenei may not want to affect electoral chances, say Vaez and other experts.

Malley, a seasoned player from the Middle East, knows this is the most complicated negotiation he has ever had to conduct. Vaez, his longtime colleague at ICG, observed that Malley himself “is never optimistic. He himself has serious concerns about the possibility of progress. ”

Colum Lynch of FP contributed to this report.

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