It’s the deal that nobody is willing to walk away from because keeping the specter of its survival alive serves the interests of all involved. Ever since then-president Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, it’s been on life support. And nobody seems willing to finally pull the plug.
The European Union and United States said on Tuesday they were studying Iran’s response to what the EU has called its “final” proposal to save the agreement, after Tehran called on Washington to show flexibility.
Ned Price, the US State Department spokesman, said the US was sharing its views on Iran’s response with the EU after receiving Tehran’s comments from the bloc.
“We are engaged in consultations with the EU as well as with our European allies on the way ahead,” he said at a press briefing on Wednesday. “We ultimately agree with the bottom-line proposition of High Representative Borrell. The reason he put forward this proposal in the first place was out of recognition that what could be negotiated has been negotiated. The high representative, and the way in which he has handled this process, has certainly narrowed the scope of that conversation. It has crystallized the decision for Iran.”
He went on to say that the US is confident that a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA “remains the best and really the most effective means by which to once again verifiably and permanently constrain Iran’s nuclear program.”
After 16 months of fitful, indirect US-Iranian talks, with the EU shuttling between the parties, a senior EU official said on August 8 the bloc had laid down a “final” offer and expected a response within a “very, very few weeks.”
Iran responded to the proposal late on Monday, but none of the parties provided any details. Earlier on Monday, Iran’s foreign minister called on the US to show flexibility to resolve three remaining issues, suggesting Tehran’s response would not be a final acceptance or rejection.
Iran has made demands the United States and other Western powers view as outside the scope of reviving the deal, such as insisting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) drop its claims Iran has failed to fully explain uranium traces at several undeclared sites.
Diplomats and officials have told Reuters that whether or not Tehran and Washington accept the EU’s “final” offer, neither is likely to declare the pact dead, because keeping it alive serves both sides’ interests.
The question is whether the Iranians are truly seeking to rejoin the 2015 agreement, or it is merely a tactic to buy more time.
Is a deal still possible?
AFTER MORE than a year of negotiations, Washington experts remain skeptical.
Dov Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration, and former deputy undersecretary of defense for planning and resources during the Reagan administration, said that Iran is playing what it thinks is a win-win game.
“If the US agrees to compensate Iran in the event that a future president walks from the deal, Iran wins,” he said. “If the IAEA investigation into the Iranian nuclear program is stopped, Iran wins. If the Revolutionary Guard Corps is taken off the terrorist list, Iran wins. And if the deal collapses and Iran proceeds with its nuclear weapons program, Iran wins that one, too.”
The West should make its current offer “take it or leave it,” Zakheim said. “Iran will proceed with its clandestine nuclear weapons program whether there is or is not a deal.”
Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the Iranians “are always about tactics.
“They believe that pressure works on us and the Europeans,” he said. “Their advancing nuclear program is a pressure tactic that has already made them a threshold nuclear power state. They continue to want to see what more they can get—[for example], get the IAEA investigations of the three sites where traces of uranium were found dropped, and be able to keep their excess enriched uranium in-country – as opposed to having to ship it outside – as a hedge against the US again withdrawing from the deal.
“So they can be using pressure as a tactic and still want to have a deal,” said Ross.
“Our response should be twofold: build pressure ourselves, by making it clear that if the Iranians don’t agree by a certain designated time, we will up the pressure on them – [for example,] tighten enforcement of sanctions by closing loopholes, withdraw our recognition that they have the right to enrich uranium.”Dennis Ross
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said that he believes that the Iranians are willing to make a deal if they get what they want out of it, and it looks as if that may now happen.
“They are tough negotiators, and right now they are trying to see if they can squeeze some more out of the United States,” he said.
“My greatest concern is that the United States appears ready to abandon the insistence on disclosures about the previous military work by Iran,” said Abrams. “Iran has stonewalled the IAEA, and if we sign an agreement without insisting on answers, Iran will have won this negotiation and we will have abandoned the IAEA. The method of doing this will be to say that that whole question of previous military work by Iran is between Iran and the IAEA and should not hold up a deal among the governments in question. It would be a great mistake, and it would be shameful and quite dangerous.”
Last week, the US Department of Justice charged a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with attempting to hire hit men to murder former national security advisor John Bolton in an apparent retaliation attempt for the January 2020 assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, a resident of Tehran, attempted to pay individuals in the US $300,000 to murder Bolton in Washington, DC, or Maryland on behalf of the Quds Force, according to court documents.
In a separate incident last week, acclaimed author Salman Rushdie suffered serious wounds when he was repeatedly stabbed at a public appearance in New York state.
The accused attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, said he respected Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini but would not say if he was inspired by a fatwa issued by the former Iranian leader, according to a New York Post interview published on Wednesday.
Matar also told the New York Post he had only “read a couple of pages” of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie, 75, was set to deliver a lecture on artistic freedom at the western New York venue when police say 24-year-old Matar rushed the stage and stabbed the Indian-born writer on Friday last week.
“I respect the ayatollah. I think he’s a great person. That’s as far as I will say about that,” the tabloid cited Matar as saying in a video interview from the Chautauqua County Jail.
Some experts suggest that the US should take these incidents into account when considering the final stages of the deal. “We do not yet know if the attack on Salman Rushdie was an official act by Iran, but we know if they have been trying to kill former high officials,” said Abrams. “I would have suspended the negotiations until it was very clear that they had desisted from those efforts. By going forward as if those threats did not exist, we send a message to Iran that this conduct is acceptable.”
Richard Goldberg, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that the US and its European partners should cut off talks “and take decisive action in retaliation for ongoing terror plots against the US homeland.”
“The Security Council should complete its snapback of sanctions to take away the JCPOA sunsets once and for all, and the IAEA Board of Governors should find Iran in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” said Goldberg.
“It’s appalling that the White House appears to be limiting the information flow on the Rushdie attacker,” he continued. “Why do we not have any information yet on the attacker’s contacts with the IRGC? Following the Bolton plot, if the attack on Rushdie links back to Tehran, we need to be honest that the Iranians are committing acts of war against the United States. You don’t respond to terrorism and acts of war by offering money.”
He went on to say that the Iranians are trying to keep the door open to a deal on their terms.
“If the Americans cave, they’ll say yes. If the Americans hold out, they’re positioning themselves to say we tried but the US side balked,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.