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Iran talks limbo
Deal on restoring Iran nuclear pact apparently still stuck on US/Iranian dispute on the de-listing of Iran’s IRGC from State Department terror black list.
Talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal, on pause since early March, remain in a state of limbo over the issue of the listing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on a State Department terror black list, following a visit of the European Union coordinator Enrique Mora to Tehran and Washington in recent days.
“There are a small number of outstanding issues” to finalize a deal return, State Department spokesman Ned Price said today (March 31). “The onus now is on Iran to make those decisions.”
Price noted that since the Trump administration quit the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, put the IRGC on a State Department terror black list in 2019, and killed IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program and attacks on US facilities and partners in the region have grown substantially worse.
“From 2012-2018, there were no significant attacks on US service members, US diplomatic facilities in Iraq,” Price said at the State Department press briefing today. “That changed in 2018. And between 2019 and 2020, the number of attacks by Iran backed groups went up 400%. That was in the aftermath of leaving the JCPOA, the FTO designation, in the aftermath of killing Soleimani.”
“The effort to subdue Iran’s proxies has not worked under the strategy we inherited,” Price continued.
“We want to see to it that we have a strategy that does work, that is effective,” Price said. “We continue to believe that returning to JCPOA is that appropriate recourse.”
EU’s Mora shuttles to Tehran and DC
In a seeming sign the Vienna talks may not be expected to resume very soon, a media tent erected outside the talks venue, the Coburg Palace Hotel, in Vienna, was dismantled today, Vienna-based reporter Stephanie Liechstenstein noted.
A European Union official said there was nothing to conclude from the media tent being dismantled. It was due to a budget and cost issue from the Austrian hosts in which the EU did not have a say, the EU official told me.
European Union coordinator Mora traveled to Iran last weekend for meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Ali Bagheri-Kani.
Mora subsequently traveled to Washington, meeting with US Iran envoy Rob Malley en route on the plane from Doha on March 28, and in Washington with NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk. However, Mora’s trip to Washington was primarily for the purpose of coordinating US/EU policy on Russia, which was launched with a formal dialogue with his counterpart Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, on Wednesday (March 30).
After a year of negotiations, a deal to restore a US return and Iranian full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear pact is basically done save for being stuck on the final issue of the designation of the IRGC by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
“The great step forward on the Iran nuclear issue is that we've got the basis of an agreement,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France 24. “There's still deadlock (...) linked to the relationship between the US and Iran. I hope we're able to settle the matter.”
The Iranians want the IRGC to be removed from the State Department FTO list, to which it was added by the Trump administration in April 2019. The IRGC would still remain on the Treasury Department’s list of specially designated global terrorists, to which it was added by the Trump Administration in 2017. In addition, the IRGC-Qods Force is on the Treasury Department SDGT list, since 2007.
But the Biden administration finds it very difficult to lift the designation, especially given reported US intelligence of Iranian plots to avenge the US killing in January 2000 of IRGC Qods force commander Qassem Soleimani that are reported to target former Trump administration officials Mike Pompeo and Brian Hook. It would find it hard to justify internally, to allies on Capitol Hill, and is also under pressure from Israel and Arab partners not to do so.
For the Biden administration to lift the IRGC designation puts it in an impossible situation to explain why it did so, especially while it reportedly has intelligence of active plots targeting former U.S. officials over the Soleimani assassination, said Ali Vaez, a top expert on the negotiations.
“It is very difficult to find a mutually acceptable formula,” Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, said on a panel hosted by the Institute for Science and Technology on Tuesday (March 29).
“It is like a Mexican standoff,” Vaez continued. “Each side expects the other to concede because it thinks the other needs the deal more. In reality, both sides need it, but I think both sides are prone to miscalculation.”
The issue is no less tricky for being more political than about material effect, said Sahil Shah, with the European Leadership Network.
“The Iranians are not asking for Trump’s October 2017 designation of the IRGC as a specially designated global terrorist or Iran being on the [U.S. list of state sponsors of terror] to be rescinded or removed,” Shah told the IST panel. “It is not trying to change the minds of foreign investors.”
In Shah’s opinion, the U.S. administration could defend a de-listing decision “because of the fact that it doesn’t have much material consequence.” The continued stalemate over the issue “really points to the domestic constraint both sides are under,” he said.
The FTO designation of the IRGC seems to have had no practical benefit for US security, Vaez agreed.
“The reality is that if the FTO designation had worked, then there [would be] no threat against the U.S. presence [in the region] or U.S. individuals,” Vaez told the IST panel. “So this is in fact…evidence that the designation has not achieved its objective, and has not made the U.S. any safer.”
But while “holding on to a designation that has utterly failed makes zero sense,” Vaez continued, “the reality is that this is not about practical issues, it is really political.”
An Iranian official, asked if he had any sense of if the sides could find a way forward, said they are trying.
“They are working hard to find a way out,” the Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told me by email today. “It’s difficult to predict when they’ll reach an agreement.”
A European negotiator also said they were trying, but offered no sense of what the next steps would be.
“We are trying our best,” the European negotiator said today.
Wait and see
“I think [the parties] are in a bit of a wait and see mode post-Nowruz to see what shakes loose,” said Henry Rome, Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, referring to the Iranian New Year holiday (March 20). The negotiating process seems “to be in a bit of suspended animation.”
On possible solutions to the standoff, Rome said he had no independent confirmation, but pointed to a thread from Israeli journalist Amichai Stein that discussed the idea of removing the IRGC from the State FTO list but adding several IRGC sub-components as a possible way to square the circle.
Radio Farda reported yesterday another idea was to seek an Iranian commitment to rescind the operational threats to avenge Soleimani’s killing in exchange for delisting.
Eurasia Group’s Rome said he thinks one way or the other, the odds are on a deal being reached.
“I think a deal is still more likely than not,” Rome told me. “There is enough political interest on both sides to overcome this last hurdle, and enough will to make it happen.”
“And the war [in Ukraine] creates certain conditions that incentivizes the US not to give up on this, from the perspective of oil prices,” Rome continued.
Asked if how an Iran deal could affect oil prices is a factor on the US side, Rome said “maybe not at the level of negotiators.”
But for the U.S. administration, focused abroad on the effort to unite the world to pressure Russia and support Ukraine, and on countering inflation and high gas prices at home, six months out from mid-term elections, “it has to be.”