The nuclear deal with Iran “is neither imminent nor certain.” This pessimistic assessment by the US State Department reflects the complexities of the last few miles before an agreement is reached between Iran and the world powers on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The already complex talks have become increasingly complicated because of the Ukraine war, which has brought the Middle East back into the heart of international politics due to the need to pump more oil and gas into global markets to lower energy prices.
European diplomatic sources say that a new deal with Iran now hinges on the most politically problematic issue in the negotiations: whether to remove the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) from the US list of foreign terrorist organisations.
Tehran wants to see the removal of the Revolutionary Guards from the US list and is linking any nuclear agreement to an agreement to its demand. Iranian officials argue that sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard would keep foreign companies away from dealing with Guard-linked Iranian firms, damping the economic benefits of a new nuclear deal for Iran.
US officials have indicated that the Biden administration is weighing its options regarding Tehran’s demand. The US administration is under increasing pressure internally and from its Middle Eastern allies to deny Tehran’s request.
The Revolutionary Guard designation highlights the crosscurrents facing the Biden administration in its efforts to revive the nuclear deal.
On Monday, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a daily briefing that “there has been significant progress in recent weeks, but I want to be clear that an agreement is neither imminent nor is it certain.”
He added that Washington is prepared to take “difficult decisions” to make it happen, as the talks in Vienna have been paused for more than ten days and it is not clear when and if they will resume.
Price also urged Tehran to free “innocent Americans and others” held in Iran, saying this was Washington’s “top priority.”
Senior US officials say a failure to find a compromise with Iran regarding the Revolutionary Guard could cause a breakdown in the negotiations that over almost a year have resolved nearly every other disagreement.
The US has accused the Revolutionary Guard of killing hundreds of Americans, while its elite Al-Quds Force has arranged weapons and support for proxy forces throughout the region and for pro-Iranian groups that have fought in Syria.
The Revolutionary Guard has long faced US sanctions for its ballistic-missile programmes and alleged human rights violations and was placed on the counterterrorism sanctions list in 2017.
The tension over the issue leaves Washington with difficult choices.
On the one hand, the Biden administration wants to sign a new nuclear agreement in order to implement one of its foreign policy goals and open the door to pumping more Iranian oil to international markets.
But on the other hand, there is Israeli and Gulf dissatisfaction at the prospect of removing the Revolutionary Guard from the US list of terrorist organisations. Top Israeli officials oppose the move, while the UAE is reportedly “shocked” at the notion.
“We are very concerned about the United States intention to give in to Iran’s outrageous demand and remove the IRGC from the list of terrorist organisations,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday, adding that Washington seemed willing to agree to a deal with Iran “at almost any cost.”
According to the Jerusalem Post newspaper, some in Abu Dhabi “are in great shock,” and their views on the issue are similar to those of Israel.
To ease the tensions, the Biden administration has proposed to remove the Revolutionary Guard from the designation in exchange for assurances from Tehran that it will not use the Revolutionary Guard and its proxy forces in the region to undermine US interests.
But both Israel and US regional allies view a possible reliance on Tehran’s pledges as insufficient and naïve.
Another proposal is to remove the Guard from the US list if Tehran commits to reining in its regional aggression and refraining from targeting Americans. If Iran does not abide by the agreement, the listing could be reimposed.
Iran, which refuses to negotiate directly with Washington, has not yet responded to the US overtures, creating a stalemate that senior US officials say could imperil a deal.
In Washington, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns over the possibility of removing the IRGC from the US list, arguing that it would embolden Iran-backed proxies such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
However, the US administration believes that a solution must be found to save the nuclear deal.
US officials have said that the threat posed by the Guard and other terrorist-listed entities would be much worse if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, given that Tehran’s breakout time to amass enough nuclear fuel for a bomb was significantly reduced after the US withdrew from the former nuclear agreement under the Trump administration.
The view in the Biden administration is that reaching a deal with Iran now and then improving upon the agreement later is a better option than waiting, these officials said.
The White House also views an agreement restraining Iran’s nuclear programme as being key to Middle Eastern stability, allowing the US to focus on China and Russia and arguing that withdrawing from the 2015 deal did not yield positive results.
“Not only has Iran’s nuclear programme advanced, but their behaviour in the region and beyond has got more aggressive, including by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
“So, the notion that the action of the past administration pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal has cut down on the actions or the escalatory behaviour of the [Guard] is inaccurate.”
The US will need to convince its Gulf allies of the benefits of reaching a new nuclear deal with Iran, even if it leads to the removal of the Revolutionary Guards from the US sanctions list.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had difficulties in their dealings with Washington recently, especially after the Biden administration took steps distancing itself from the Middle East to focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
The US has also removed the Houthis from its terror designation and restricted weapons sales to the Saudi-led Coalition fighting in Yemen.
But after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the rise in energy prices on the international market, and Washington’s demand that Saudi Arabia and the UAE increase their oil production to lower prices, the US administration began taking steps to reduce tensions with its allies in the Middle East, who are worried about the repercussions of the Iranian nuclear agreement.
On Monday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan slammed Tehran’s support for the Houthis as the rebel force launched multiple attacks against Saudi Arabia over the weekend. Sullivan repeated US accusations that Tehran is supplying missiles and drones to the Houthis, violating a UN arms embargo.
Saudi Arabia warned on Monday that Yemeni rebel attacks on the kingdom’s oil facilities posed a “direct threat” to global supplies. Saudi Arabia “will not incur any responsibility” for shortages in oil supplies in the light of the Iran-backed Houthi attacks, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In response, the US announced that it has transferred a significant number of Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia, fulfilling an urgent request from the kingdom that has become a point of contention in relations between Washington and Riyadh, according to the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.
Amidst increasing uncertainty, Iran’s supreme leader signalled his support for Tehran’s nuclear negotiations to secure sanctions relief in a rare reference to the still-halted talks.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed the importance of Iranian economic self-sufficiency during a televised speech on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
“The essence of the issue is to run the country in such a way that sanctions cannot hit it seriously,” Khamenei said, praising the hardline government of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for boosting Iran’s trade with its neighbours and shipping Iranian crude abroad despite the sanctions.
Khamenei, whose pronouncements are considered the final say on all state matters in Iran, has remained largely silent on the negotiations to restore Tehran’s nuclear deal with the world powers.
His latest intervention could be seen as a sign of Iran’s desire to revive the nuclear agreement before the Biden administration is paralysed by the approaching midterm elections to the US Congress.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly