US President Joe Biden had his best month in the White House in August since taking office in January last year.
The House of Representatives approved a major tax, healthcare, and climate-change bill worth $700 billion that Biden and congressional Democrats had campaigned hard for since the first days of his presidency.
The legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, represents a huge boost in funding for clean energy and healthcare as it allows the government to negotiate the price of certain drugs. It also includes new tax measures involving the establishment of a 15 per cent minimum tax rate and a one per cent excise tax on corporations that has attracted fierce criticism from Republicans.
On the foreign policy front, US intelligence carried out an operation in Kabul that led to the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The operation was a message that despite last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US can still carry out operations in Afghanistan to protect its national security, Biden said in a speech after the news had been announced.
These achievements come at an opportune time for the Democrats, with US midterm elections approaching in November. They have also turned the attention of the administration towards another goal, the negotiation of a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Success in the nuclear negotiations would be another victory for Biden’s foreign policy before the midterm elections. Although they are related to stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapons programme, if they are successful a new deal with Iran will have a positive impact for the US.
Removing the sanctions on Iran would allow Tehran to pump several million additional barrels of oil per day into the international market, contributing to reducing prices globally including for American consumers.
There is an increasing conviction that the nuclear agreement is in its final stages and that only the final touches remain to the text that was handed over by the European Commission last week to Washington and Tehran.
On Tuesday, Iran announced that it had submitted a “written response” to what has been described as a final roadmap to restore its tattered nuclear deal with the world powers.
However, the country’s chief adviser to the negotiations, Mohamed Marandi, tweeted that an agreement was closer than ever, but not yet done. His assessment was supported by European diplomats close to the negotiations.
Marandi tweeted that Iran had “expressed its concerns” about the draft, but the “remaining issues are not very difficult to resolve.”
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency offered no details on the substance of the country’s response to the EU draft but suggested that Tehran would not accept the EU-mediated proposal as it stood, despite warnings there would be no more negotiations.
An EU official confirmed that Iran had responded to the EU’s “final” draft text to save the nuclear deal on Monday evening, without giving any further details.
Iran has said that any final deal should protect its rights and guarantee the lifting of sanctions, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues and boosting Iran’s struggling economy.
Citing the position of the Iranian negotiating team, IRNA reported on Tuesday that differences remained on three issues.
On two of them, the US had “expressed its verbal flexibility,” it said. The third issue relates to the parties’ “guaranteeing the continuation” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the deal.
Earlier on Monday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that if the US showed a realistic and flexible reaction to Iran’s offer, they “would be at the point of agreement”.
“We have told them that our red lines should be respected... We have shown enough flexibility... We do not want to reach a deal that after 40 days, two months, or three months fails to be materialised on the ground,” he added.
Amir-Abdollahian said that “the coming days are very important” and that “it would not be the end of the world if they fail to show flexibility... Then we will need more efforts and talks ... to resolve the remaining issues.”
But any failure to reach a deal carries many risks, with Israel threatening to launch preemptive attacks on Iranian nuclear sites to prevent it from developing a nuclear-weapons programme.
Iran, which has long denied building a nuclear-weapons programme, has warned of a “crushing” response to any Israeli attack.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the US would share its own response to the EU. “We do agree, however, with [the EU’s] fundamental point, and that is that what could be negotiated has been negotiated,” Price said.
He added that Iran had been making “unacceptable demands” going beyond the text of the 2015 nuclear deal that saw Iran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
“If Iran wants these sanctions lifted, they will need to alter their underlying conduct,” Price said. “They will need to change the dangerous activities that gave rise to these sanctions in the first place.”
The US said the deal could only be revived if Iran dropped “extraneous” issues, an apparent reference to Tehran’s demand that the UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) close a probe into unexplained uranium traces at sites in Iran and that its Revolutionary Guards come off a US terrorism list.
The US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump. In the wake of the US withdrawal, Iran has increasingly violated the agreements it made under the deal and expanded its nuclear programme.
The Biden administration will have crucial decisions to make in the coming days. For the nuclear agreement to happen, Washington may have to provide more guarantees to Iran, and this may complicate domestic calculations for Biden.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.