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Iran talks still in limbo, US counter proposal expected
‘Seems we are still waiting for US answers,’ western diplomat. 'Agreement is neither imminent nor certain at this time,' state Department spokesperson.
The United States had been expected to send a counter proposal to Iran in recent days, but it still has not happened yet, diplomatic sources tell me, in a further delay in possibly finding a way to overcome the final hitch in a basically otherwise done draft deal on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear pact.
“Seems we are still waiting for US answers,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told me today (April 8). “But things are getting confusing.”
The anticipated U.S. counter-proposal would be in response to a proposal from Iran that European Union coordinator Enrique Mora brought to Washington early last week, which the U.S. considered completely unacceptable, sources said.
The Iranian proposal, via Mora, followed Iran apparently rejecting a US idea that the two sides would agree not to target each other’s officials, in exchange for any delisting of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from a State Department terror black list that Iran has been seeking.
A US official said today that President Biden, like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, believes that a subgroup of the IRGC, the IRGC Qods Force, is a terrorist group.
“I’d say that the President shares the chairman’s view that IRGC Qods Forces are terrorists, and beyond that we aren’t going to comment on any of the topics in the nuclear talks,” State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told journalists on a State Department briefing call today (April 8).
“But what I would say is out of the 107 Biden administration designations in relation to Iran, 86 have specifically targeted the IRGC-related persons as well as affiliates,” Porter added.
Porter also reiterated downbeat comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week that a deal on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is neither imminent nor inevitable.
“We don’t have any updates to share at this time other than it’s obviously been a significant process, but an agreement is neither imminent nor certain at this time,” Porter said today, regarding the Vienna talks.
“I am not overly optimistic at the prospect of actually getting an agreement to conclusion, despite all the efforts we have put into it and despite the fact that I believe our security would be better off,” Blinken told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in Brussels on Wednesday (April 6). “We are not there.”
US Iran envoy Rob Malley also traveled to Brussels and met with his European counterparts there this week.
“It’s what we’ve been saying for a while….alas,” a senior U.S. official, asked about Blinken’s comments, told me.
Trying to find solution on IRGC black list issue
On the politically thorny issue of Iran seeking the de-listing of the IRGC from the State Department foreign terror organization (FTO) black list, “there are not a lot of middle ground solutions,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told me.
Recall, the Bush administration first put the IRGC/Qods force on the Treasury Department’s specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) black list in 2007. The Trump administration put the whole IRGC on the SDGT list in 2017. It added the IRGC to the State Department’s FTO list in April 2019.
One possible middle ground idea proposed by journalist Jason Rezaian at the Washington Post would be to add the IRGC’s Qods force and intelligence arm to the State Department FTO list, while removing the IRGC. Rezaian wrote:
Now, President Biden has the opportunity to home in on a more practical and effective approach that could actually yield positive results: listing specific individuals and entities within the IRGC.
This would include the Quds Force, which the United States says is responsible for providing improvised explosive devices that killed and wounded hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.
They should also target the IRGC intelligence unit, which is the main hostage-taking arm of the Iranian regime. Its ongoing practice of abducting and imprisoning foreign nationals on unsubstantiated charges, to be used as leverage in international negotiations, is an internationally recognized serial act of terrorism. […]
If the Biden administration indeed intends to remove the terrorist designation, it should immediately follow with policies targeting specific elements of the IRGC known to be directly involved in acts of terrorism, as should have been done long ago.
It’s not clear if that idea is acceptable to either or both sides. It is worth noting however that both Milley’s and the Biden administration’s statements in recent days expressed the view that the Qods force specifically, and not the IRGC as a whole, was a terror group.
Experts I spoke to said they were not certain what exactly would be in the US counter-proposal, which one source thought was awaiting White House attention, which is stretched in particular over responding to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Beyond the difficult decision over what to do on the IRGC FTO listing, from a non-proliferation standpoint, the benefits of reviving the deal are superior to the alternative, experts said.
“A pivot to a pressure-centric strategy is a long term gamble, and what you have to do in the interim period is figure out a way to keep the [Iranian nuclear] program in check,” Eric Brewer, a senior director with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and a former NSC and intelligence community official, told me. “And if you set red lines, you have to be willing to risk carrying out military action.”
“If you make that choice, you have to be willing to take on that burden,” Brewer continued. “And it’s a tough burden, given China and Russia and Ukraine.”
On Capitol Hill, most Democrats are waiting to see what’s in any revived deal.
On Capitol Hill, Hill watchers don’t see significant Democratic opposition to a revived deal--likely not enough to sink it during anticipated Congressional review expected to follow a possible deal. But many, understandably enough, would like to see what is in it first.
Just five House Democratic lawmakers showed up at an event on April 6 to express concern about a possible deal revival, noted J Street’s Dylan Williams.
“There were supposed to be 15+ Members at this event but only five showed up,” Williams wrote on Twitter. “Anyone who's worked on the Hill knows that Members make time to show up for what's important to them. This paltry showing means much-vaunted Democratic opposition to Iran deal restoration is just hot air.”
Asked why we are seeing recent occasional displays of “concern” about the deal, when there is no deal to be concerned about as yet, (and the administration is saying one is not imminent), one Hill watcher said it may have to do with the Congressional recess which started today and is going on for two weeks.
“Because the actual nuclear component of deal is basically finalized, it seems like there is a little bit of fear [among deal critics] there could be movement during the Congressional recess,” Ryan Costello, with the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) told me.
As to the relative mutedness of expressions of support for a deal, Costello said most Democrats support diplomacy, but want to see what is in the deal first.
“The vast majority support diplomacy, but they would like to see what is in the deal,” he said. “That means they are not going to comment until they actually see it.”
Update: The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reports tonight that Biden will not remove the IRGC from US terror list as a condition for restoring the JCPOA.
Update II: Hearing that the President may not have made a decision yet on the IRGC FTO issue. Asked about that, a US senior administration official on Saturday said:
We are not going to negotiate in public. There are still gaps that have yet to close before returning to JCPOA. The President has made clear he’ll do what’s in best interest of US security - and the onus here is really on Iran at this stage, particularly on this issue.
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