The US administration finds itself between a rock and a hard place in the nuclear talks with Iran. After lengthy negotiations over the past 12 months, several drafts, and many obstacles, the outcome of the talks will depend on a central issue: how to deal with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)?
From the Iranian perspective, the answer is clear. If the Biden administration wants to reach a deal, the Revolutionary Guard must be removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organisations (FTO), a designation that has applied since former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018.
But the administration is facing fierce resistance to the move internally and regionally, complicating Biden’s decision.
Internally, some congressional Republicans are spearheading legislative efforts to bar the administration from lifting sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards Corps as part of a new nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Republicans Brian Mast and Scott Perry introduced on Monday the Preventing Terror Sympathisers from Appeasing Terrorists Act, a bill that would block the White House from delisting the IRGC from the FTO list without congressional approval.
The Mast-Perry bill states that the IRGC’s terrorism designation “may not be revoked or rescinded, except by a joint resolution of Congress.” While the House of Representatives remains under narrow Democratic Party control, mounting opposition to the new accord on both sides of the aisle is likely to give the legislation a chance of passing.
A separate piece of bipartisan legislation was also introduced into the House last week that would require the Biden administration to disclose how sanctions relief for Iran will boost the IRGC’s capabilities.
While the White House is required under a 2015 law to present any deal with Iran to Congress for approval, it has become increasingly clear that the administration will bypass this law. Former US president Barack Obama used executive powers to pass the original deal in 2015 when it became clear that Congress might kill it.
The increasing pressure on Biden to halt the removal of the Revolutionary Guards from the list of terrorist organisations is putting him in a difficult position. He wants to complete the nuclear deal with Iran to avoid looking weak in front of his European allies. Lifting the sanctions on Iran would also lead to pumping more oil into international markets, leading to lower energy prices.
At present, high-energy prices threaten a recession, economic slowdown, and a crisis in living standards.
But if Biden agrees to the Iranian request to secure a nuclear deal in the coming weeks, Washington’s relations with traditional allies such as Israel and the Gulf states will suffer.
Gulf diplomats say that relations with Washington are already going through one of their worst phases in the past 70 years. Officials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia have in recent weeks been uncharacteristically blunt to visiting diplomats about the nature of their grievances and how far they are prepared to take them.
One Western diplomat told the UK newspaper the Guardian that a Saudi counterpart had said that “this is the end of the road for us and Biden, and maybe for the US also.”
Gulf officials say that Biden’s policies towards the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which he removed from the US list of terrorist organisations, the failure to support Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, Washington’s reluctance to sell the UAE F-35 fighter jets, and the administration’s eagerness to return to the nuclear agreement and lift the sanctions on Iran compromise the Gulf’s security while strengthening Iran.
Despite repeated calls by US officials for the Gulf to increase the supply of oil in the global market, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have confirmed their commitment to the agreed quotas under the OPEC Plus agreement, prompting Biden to announce an unprecedented use of the US strategic oil reserve in the hope of reducing energy prices.
All this has placed an additional burden on the already complex negotiations with Iran. The talks, stalled since mid-March, are now facing a moment of the truth, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for the impasse.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday that Iranian negotiators would not return to Vienna, the site of the year-long talks to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran until Washington settled outstanding issues.
“We will not be going to Vienna for new negotiations, but to finalise the nuclear agreement,” Khatibzadeh told reporters in Tehran. “If Washington answers the outstanding questions, we can go to Vienna as soon as possible,” he said.
“At the moment, we do not have a definitive answer from Washington,” he added, even as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said an agreement was “close” during a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“We have passed on our proposals on the remaining issues to the American side through the EU senior negotiator, and now the ball is in the US court,” Iran’s top diplomat said.
However, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price suggested it was Tehran that was not giving way to make a deal possible. Price warned that time was running out, as Iran got closer to the nuclear “breakout” point when it has the capacity to construct a nuclear weapon.
“Anyone involved in the talks knows precisely who has made constructive proposals, who has introduced demands that are unrelated to the JCPOA, and how we reached this current moment,” he said.
“We still believe there is an opportunity to overcome our remaining differences,” he added. He warned that Iran’s continuing nuclear development had put it within “weeks” of a breakout, which would nullify the benefits of a new agreement.
“Iran has been able to shrink that breakout time from where it started to a point where we can measure it in weeks rather than months. To us, that is unacceptable as a long-term proposition,” Price said.
The State Department also noted that after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, “the number of attacks by Iran-backed groups went up 400 per cent” between 2019 and 2020. “That was in the aftermath of leaving the [nuclear deal], the FTO designation, and killing [Iranian] general Suleimani,” Price told reporters.
During his tour last week of Israel and Morocco, where he met with several Arab officials, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated similar warnings, saying that the longer it takes to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, the more time Tehran will have to produce enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb.
US officials privately say that dropping the FTO designation would have little real effect on the IRGC because the group is under a long list of other sanctions that will not be lifted in any deal.
US Special Envoy Robert Malley recently reiterated that Washington would maintain sanctions on the IRGC even if the organisation is ultimately delisted.
Meanwhile, Washington continues to put pressure on Iran. Last week, the US Treasury announced sanctions targeting several entities it accuses of involvement in procuring supplies for Iran’s ballistic missile programme.
With negotiations still at a stalemate, Europe is concerned that the nuclear deal with Iran may stumble at the last hurdle.
The EU’s foreign policy chief announced in mid-March that significant progress had been made in talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, but that a pause was needed. During the last week of March, Enrique Mora, the leader of the EU delegation to the talks, travelled to Tehran and Washington to meet Iranian and American nuclear negotiators in a bid to overcome the remaining disputes.
With much at stake, negotiations are intensifying between the US and Europe to create the appropriate atmosphere for a return to the nuclear agreement in the hope of preventing Tehran from enriching uranium to military levels, subjecting its facilities to the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), lifting the sanctions, and returning Iranian oil to international markets, thus alleviating the global energy price crisis.
“Without de-escalation in the region, the deal cannot survive,” a European diplomat familiar with the talks told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Even if a nuclear deal is reached now, the odds remain high that it could crumble within a few years if regional tensions remain high.”
“Some positive developments, including a ceasefire agreement between the Houthis in Yemen and the Saudi-led Coalition, could open the door for progress in the nuclear talks. America and Europe do not link this truce with the nuclear negotiations with Tehran as this will complicate the process because it will link the nuclear issue with other regional issues,” he said.
“Nonetheless, in closed-door meetings US officials tell their counterparts in the region that all regional issues will be on the table with Iran after the nuclear deal is reached. But there is a trust deficit between Washington and its traditional allies in the region, and this trust deficit is proving to be a big obstacle to closing the nuclear deal,” the diplomat concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.