U.S. on Iran deal deadlock: ‘We know the status quo can’t endure for long’
Standoff over Iran Guards de-listing comes after a source close to the talks says Iran earlier signaled tentative willingness to consider some mutual commitment.
As a stalemate in suspended talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal drags on into a second month, a source close to the talks says he understands that Iran at some point earlier this spring signaled at least tentative willingness to consider some sort of mutual commitment in exchange for removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from a U.S. terror black list. Then, possibly in part when Iran learned that the commitment would not be kept private, Iran walked back any initial openness to the proposal for a mutual commitment, such as an agreement not to target each other’s (former) officials, the expert said.
U.S. and European officials indicated that what had transpired was far more complicated than that, and that the summary did not capture all what had gone on, but declined to elaborate.
“I do not think there was ever any full agreement,” one western diplomat involved in the nuclear talks told me.
“The situation is difficult because communication goes through intermediaries and there is never full clarity,” the western diplomat added.
The onus is on Iran, multiple U.S. officials have said.
The process has been stuck in limbo since mid-March over Iran’s insistence that the IRGC be removed from the State Department Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, though a draft deal on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear pact is understood to have basically been done since early March.
The Biden administration has indicated that Biden is not willing to remove the IRGC from the FTO list if Iran does not agree to some reciprocal non-nuclear step, several of which the U.S. has reportedly proposed. Among the ideas the U.S. had reportedly proposed are a mutual commitment not to target each other’s officials or former officials, for Iran to lift sanctions on U.S. Central Command, or agree to follow-on regional talks.
“The Iranians wanted us to remove the IRGC FTO,” a senior U.S. official told me last week. “And we gave them lots of options for non-nuclear concessions and commitments they could make in return,” the U.S. official said. The Iranians apparently said no.
“The ball is in their court,” the US official continued. “They have an option to return on a compliance-for-compliance basis.”
European Union coordinator Enrique Mora has reportedly offered to travel to Iran again to try to un-stick the process, the Wall Street Journal reported May 1st, but as yet Iran has not issued an invitation.
Iran is reluctant to invite the EU coordinator because they anticipate that he is not bringing them a new offer they would like, but rather is going to try to convince them to drop their FTO de-listing demands, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group.
“Mora wanted to go to Tehran and talk to them and see if we can find a way forward and they haven't responded to this request,” Vaez said in an interview. “And I think the reason is, they believe he's not going to go there with a new offer…which is what the Iranians want. [They think] he wants to go there and basically convince them to back off and drop their demand, which is very unlikely to happen.”
“The reality is, momentum has been lost and the mood has soured on both sides,” Vaez told me. “So that's why neither side wants to take the initiative. The U.S. believes that it has already put… ideas on paper that Iran has rejected. … So the onus is on Iran. And Iran believes that there's a domestic political issue for the Biden administration. And it's not their problem.”
A source described as close to the IRGC told Al-Monitor that it considers the U.S. having placed the IRGC on the FTO list in 2019 as linked to the Trump administration’s subsequent decision to target IRGC Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani in a lethal drone strike in January 2020. In retaliation for the U.S. killing of Soleimani, the United States reportedly believes that there are credible threats apparently plotted by elements in Iran to try to target former U.S. officials.
“The killing of Soleimani was based upon the designation of the corps as a terrorist organization, and keeping them and the Quds Force on these lists will mean accepting their right to kill the commanders, whether now or later,” the source close to the IRGC was cited by Al-Monitor’s Ali Hashem on April 29.
If the Iranians see the FTO designation as linked to Soleimani’s assassination, one might think they would see the logic of some reciprocal agreement, where the two sides would agree not to target each other’s officials, or to de-list U.S. Central Command in exchange for the US de-listing the IRGC, for instance.
“Yes,” the source close to the talks told me. “And that’s why I think initially the Iranians agreed to provide that commitment, basically a mutual commitment…not to target each other’s former officials. They initially seem to have agreed to it. But then … they walked that back.” He understood the timing of the walk-back to be some time in mid-March, before Mora’s March 27 trip to Iran.
The status quo is not sustainable
The State Department said today it still considers a mutual return to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the U.S. national security interest. But it is prepared, and is in ongoing consultations with allies, if it has to pursue a different path, it said.
“We know the status quo can’t endure for long,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists at the State Department briefing today (May 5). “And so either we’re going to be in a position to return to compliance with the JCPOA…or we’re going to have to pursue a different path.”
“My main concern is that the current situation is not really sustainable,” the Crisis Group’s Vaez said. “I think there are some people in the administration and some in Iran who believe that…the status quo could be sustained for the foreseeable future.”
“The reality is that already in the month of June this process will come under a tremendous amount of pressure, because…when the IAEA report comes out, it probably will become clear that Iran has… a significant quantity of 60% enriched uranium…and that would be a major concern for Israel and the US,” he said. That coupled with subsequent action at the IAEA Board of Governors could set off a new cycle of escalation, he said.
The main issue for Iran of any revived nuclear deal is sustainability, former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian told me.
“The fear the Iranians have is if you mention anything on regional issues, immediately after the revival of the JCPOA, if any issue happens in the region, Iran will automatically be blamed,” Mousavian, now with Princeton University, said. “And it will be another justification for the US to withdraw.”
Mousavian said he would propose reviving the JCPOA, while starting regional track talks between Iran, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council under UN Secretary General auspices (based on UN Security Council resolution 2231, which enshrined the Iran nuclear deal, and UNSCR 598, which ended the Iran Iraq war, respectively).
Decoupling JCPOA revival from IRGC FTO issue
Comments in passing from diplomats who have been involved in the past year of Vienna talks suggest the FTO issue is not being negotiated in the usual Vienna format, but through other intermediaries. And that the issue has been somewhat compartmentalized from the nuclear talks.
The western diplomat said in his view, “some kind of ‘decoupling’ seems to be the most viable option,” of the IRGC FTO issue from the nuclear deal restoration package.
“As I said before, the situation is difficult because communication goes through intermediaries, and there is never full clarity,” he said.
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