An Iran deal is still far off, but neither side is leaving yet

WASHINGTON AFFAIRS: Some believe the Iran deal is dead because Biden refused to delist the IRGC as a terror organization.

 ROBERT MALLEY, the Biden administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill last week. (photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
ROBERT MALLEY, the Biden administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill last week.
(photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – Prospects for reaching a nuclear deal with Iran “are tenuous at best,” said Rob Malley, the Biden administration's special representative to Iran.

When he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Malley also implied that delisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list was off the table.

“If Iran maintains demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], we will continue to reject them, and there will be no deal,” he said. “It is not our preference, but we are fully prepared to live with and confront that reality if that is Iran’s choice,” he continued.

That delisting the IRGC was one of Iran’s main demands led some to believe that US President Joe Biden’s refusal to do so means that the deal is dead. However, Washington experts are still split, and others believe that reviving the 2015 nuclear deal is still an option since both side are still interested in reaching a deal.

“WHILE HANGING tough on the FTO designation, it’s clear from Malley’s testimony last week that the administration remains ready to reenter the deal – even if it’s demonstrably shorter and weaker than the original JCPOA,” says John Hannah, Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

 MEMBERS OF the JCPOA Joint Commission convene in Vienna last month. (credit: EU Delegation in Vienna/European External Action Service/Reuters) MEMBERS OF the JCPOA Joint Commission convene in Vienna last month. (credit: EU Delegation in Vienna/European External Action Service/Reuters)

Hannah served in senior foreign policy positions for both Democratic and Republican administrations, including as former vice president Dick Cheney’s national security advisor from 2005 to 2009.

"The ball is in Iran's court."

Former vice president Dick Cheney

“The ball is in Iran’s court,” he said. “It’s all up to the supreme leader. How badly does Iran need it? All signs are that he’s in no rush.

“Why should he be? To lure Iran back, the administration significantly eased sanctions enforcement,” he continued. “Both Iran’s oil exports and accessible foreign currency reserves have skyrocketed. At the same time, Iran’s nuclear program has been allowed to make dangerous advancements with impunity. Its attacks on US personnel and partners have doubled without serious US retaliation. The fact is that open-ended diplomacy in Vienna has provided excellent cover for Iran to escalate its malign behavior on all fronts while at the same time improving its economy.”

He went on to say that the reality is that “the deal won’t be dead until the administration declares it dead, walks away from the table, and pivots to a serious plan B that focuses on using all instruments of national power to pressure Iran into fundamentally changing its calculations.

“A major component of any plan B should be a new US declaratory policy – a Biden Doctrine, if you will – that publicly recommits the United States to working in close cooperation with its regional and global partners to defend its vital interests in the security of the Gulf region, including its willingness to use all instruments of national power, including force, to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Hannah continued.

“In addition, plan B should include vigorous enforcement of existing sanctions, including a willingness to target the Chinese firms that have been buying the vast majority of Iran’s oil, censuring Iran at the upcoming IAEA meeting, and pressing the UK, France and Germany to trigger the JCPOA’s powerful snapback provision to reinstate all UN sanctions and constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” he argued.

The administration should also undertake a major effort to repair its relations with our key Gulf partners, Hannah said, “and take advantage of the Abraham Accords to build a new US-led security framework for the region aimed at countering the growing Iranian threat, especially in the missile and drone realm.

“Finally, special priority should be given to ensuring that Israel is provided with whatever capabilities it needs to credibly conduct an effective military operation on its own to significantly degrade Iran’s nuclear program – including advanced KC-46A aerial refueling tankers, more F-35s and F-15s, and bunker-busting precision munitions,” he said.

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that Biden should be commended for refusing to remove the IRGC from the FTO list.

“But we should be on guard: Iran has a track record of making outrageous demands in order to trade them for egregious concessions on other issues,” he said. “The administration may try to sell Congress that they held the line on the outrageous, so they should accept the egregious. This makes a deal still more likely than not.”

The central problem with current policy, said Dubowitz, is that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does not believe that the president will use severe sanctions or force.

“That is why most of Iran’s nuclear expansion, including enrichment to 20% and 60%, occurred after the election of President Biden, who pledged during the election to stop the maximum pressure campaign,” he argued.

“Because Khamenei does not fear the Biden, he will escalate his nuclear program as restrictions sunset, intensify his regional aggression, immunize the regime against sanctions pressure, and develop nuclear ICBMs to hold American cities hostage,” said Dubowitz.

There is a plan B, he said. “Impose maximum pressure with a credible threat of military force to get a longer and stronger deal that permanently cuts off Iran’s nuclear weapons pathways.

“Second, the administration should ensure that Israel has everything it needs to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability.

“Third, support and more closely integrate American allies in the region to roll back and deter Iran’s aggression. This requires the Biden administration to repair the relationship with the Saudis and encourage greater normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Finally, support the millions of Iranians who seek to bring down the regime.”

Naysan Rafati is Crisis Group’s Iran senior analyst. His research is focused on the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s regional policies.

“I’d say there are two issues to bear in mind,” he said.

“The first is that for all the challenges in these negotiations over reviving the deal, the core technical text laying out how Iran would roll back its nuclear program and the broad scope of US sanctions relief has been essentially ready for months,” said Rafati.

“The second is that the remaining issues, including the IRGC FTO designation, are the hardest to resolve, wrapped up as they are in political dynamics in Washington as well as Tehran.”

The fundamental bargain in the JCPOA still stands, he said. “The US and other parties want the restrictions the deal put on Iran’s nuclear program back in place – all the more as it approaches the breakout threshold; Iran’s economy, for all the rhetoric around having ‘neutralized’ the impact of sanctions, is in a very difficult spot.

“But the impasse is significant and stubborn, with both sides expecting the other to blink first, each believing that they have a viable fallback strategy, and neither willing to compromise on the final hurdles,” Rafati said.

According to Matthew Levitt, Fromer-Wexler fellow at The Washington Institute and director of its program on counterterrorism and intelligence, it was a mistake that the negotiators brought up the option of delisting.

“The negotiations aren’t actually about that,” he said. “It’s about freezing the nuclear program and getting access to a tremendous amount of money. And if the Iranians want that, then they’ll conclude the deal. The deal was there to be concluded. [Unless] they don’t – either, because they don’t want to give up the nuclear program, or because there are divisions within the Iranian leadership, and the revolutionary leadership actually sees some benefit in not concluding a deal.”

What’s the benefit for them of not concluding the deal?

“Having the benefit of having the Western bogeyman they can point to as the source of all their problems. Ultimately, it’s the revolutionaries, it’s the IRGC, it’s the Quds Force that are best positioned to be able to evade sanctions. So if you are a regime that cares more about financing Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah in Lebanon, more than you care about providing economic dividends for your average citizen in Isfahan, then maybe the deal’s not so important to you.

“The Biden administration came in saying they wanted to have a deal, and then the way they conducted these negotiations really seemed to underscore their strong desire to have a deal,” Levitt continued.

“But I don’t think that they ever were at a point where they wanted a deal at any cost. I think that the administration misplayed their hand several times, and they’ve done things to make our allies in the region, both Israel and the Gulf states, feel that they are being left to their own devices, and that we are withdrawing from the region, and that we just want a deal to be able to put this chapter behind us. I don’t think that’s the case.

“I do think that the administration truly believes that a JCPOA 2.0, with all of its flaws, with all the sunset clauses, is still better than nothing, and that without a deal, you’re going to have very near-term nuclear problems, which are going to be very difficult to deal with.”