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Biden's 'lack of political will' stopping return to Iran nuclear deal, experts say

With Biden refusing to delist IRGC as a terror group and Iran continuing nuclear proliferation, prospects of a return to accord look bleak
Nonproliferation experts warn Iran has enriched enough up to 60 percent purity, a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
Nonproliferation experts warn Iran has enriched uranium up to 60 percent purity, a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent (AFP/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Fourteen months after the US joined talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, experts say the Biden administration is unwilling to take the final steps over the finish line because of a lack of "political will".

Returning to the accord was a key part of Biden's foreign policy platform during his presidential campaign, during which he pledged to use "hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend [the Iran deal]".

Now, with most of the agreement having been drafted, talks have stalled as Iran demands the White House reverse Donald Trump's April 2019 decision to designate the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terror organisation (FTO).

At the time of the listing, the move was condemned as a "poison pill" that would only work to derail a potential return to the nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration unilaterally walked away in 2018.

'This is all about political will'

- Trita Parsi, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Now, the IRGC listing is understood to be the final remaining impediment for a negotiated return to the deal - which many say is the only path towards keeping Iran away from obtaining an atomic bomb.

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According to analysts, a decision to remove the FTO designation would not denote an actual change, as sanctions on the IRGC would remain.

Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice-president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says Biden is reluctant to remove sanctions on the IRGC due to political pressure on the White House.

"This is all about political will. If there was such a thing as a point of no return - and we were to believe the rhetoric of the Biden administration - we passed it months ago," Parsi told Middle East Eye.

"And it's been clear from the very beginning that to get it they will have to undo a very significant amount of the deliberate poison pills and traps that the Trump administration had laid out. And those were deliberately designed to be politically costly, such as the delisting of the IRGC."

Biden 'also to blame'

Late last month, Biden finalised his position to keep the IRGC on the terror list, according to a Politico report, relaying his position to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Rob Malley, the Biden administration's chief negotiator, said in May that the prospects of a deal were "tenuous at best". 

"Biden is absolutely correct in pointing out that Trump is at fault for having left the JCPOA and created the mess. But Biden has chosen to continue Trump's failed maximum pressure policy for a year and a half now," Parsi said.

"He is responsible for its continued failure."

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Much of the negotiated deal had been completed by March, said Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"In terms of the technical text, the Europeans have been saying this for months - that basically, they're ready to go. And what it's boiled down to are less of the technical issues and more of the political issues," he told MEE.

Rafati said that before the negotiations stalled, the general parameters were already agreed, in terms of what steps Iran would take to get back into compliance under the deal, and what sanctions the US would lift.

"But as has been the case in these negotiations, the trouble with getting close is that it usually means the most difficult issues have been left to the last," Rafati said.

"And the IRGC designation has been one of them; the Iranians have also continued to talk about the notion of economic guarantees."

Saudi-Israel normalisation

Amid the stalled negotiations, Biden's foreign policy team has appeared to turn its sights on another foreign policy trophy: repairing ties with Saudi Arabia, its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and getting Riyadh to normalise ties with Israel.

Late last month, US media reported Biden was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, a sharp turn of events after months of tense ties following Riyadh's refusal to join western sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and the kingdom's refusal to pump more oil amid soaring fuel prices.

Parsi said the attempt to normalise ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel represented how the Biden administration appears to want to continue Trump's maximalist foreign policy approach in the Middle East. If this is the case, Parsi noted, it would not bode well for a return to the nuclear agreement.

"I think it's fair to say that some in the Biden administration suffer from Trump envy. They want to out-do Trump when it comes to the Abraham Accords," said Parsi, referring to the Trump-brokered normalisation deals between Israel and four Arab countries: Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.

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"And instead [Biden] is working to get Saudi Arabia to recognise Israel, despite the fact that the Israelis have done absolutely nothing to move towards a peace with the Palestinians."

While the visit has been reportedly delayed to next month, the prospect remains of a Biden trip to the region, replete with a photo with the Saudi crown prince - with whom Biden said he would not deal directly when coming into office.

The pieces appear to be falling into place for Biden's team, as Israel has reportedly accepted security arrangements to allow the transfer of two strategic islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. In exchange, Saudi Arabia will open its airspace to Israeli airlines. 

Saudi Arabia has also agreed to boost oil production over the next several months, going outside of an agreement with Opec and Russia.

Parsi said the current goal of securing a reset with Saudi Arabia was taking priority over the nuclear deal, and would make it even more difficult to delist the IRGC - as Riyadh and other Gulf countries, as well as Israel, have long been opposed to the move.

"It does seem as if a delisting of the IRGC in the midst of those efforts could be problematic and jeopardise efforts to convince the Saudis to take not a full step towards normalisation but a partial step towards normalisation."

Ball in Iran's court

On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) announced Iran would remove 27 cameras from its nuclear sites, another move by Tehran to shift further from nuclear cooperation with the international community.

The IAEA's Director-General Rafael Grossi condemned the move, saying it was a "fatal blow" to the nuclear negotiations, and called on Tehran to have the cameras back online within the next three to four weeks. 

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi has repeatedly said he would continue to build the country's civil nuclear programme while remaining committed to negotiations, saying it was the "Iranian people's nuclear rights".

'As Iran's nuclear programme continues to expand... the incentive for restoring the agreements... only grows'

- Naysan Rafati, International Crisis Group

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa programme at Chatham House, told MEE that with Biden making it clear where the US stood on the IRGC designation, Iran has to now choose whether it will agree to a return to the deal.

"President Biden isn't going to reverse his position. What we don't know is if Iran will reverse its position. And so we're in this limbo moment waiting to see if indeed the Iranians want the deal more than they want the lifting of the IRGC designation," Vakil said.

"The decision currently rests with Iran on whether they want to come back and sign on to this agreement that they've negotiated for well over a year or not. And the ball I believe, rests squarely on Tehran's side of the court."

Non-proliferation experts warn Iran has enriched uranium up to 60 percent purity, a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, the level needed to make one nuclear weapon. Iran insists its programme is for peaceful purposes. The nuclear deal capped enrichment at 3.67 percent.

Building a nuclear bomb would still take Iran more time if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran's advances make the programme more dangerous and that returning to the nuclear deal is the best-case scenario to prevent this.

"The irony here is that as Iran's nuclear programme continues to expand, and we get to the point of near zero breakout time, the incentive for restoring the agreements, the non-proliferation benefits, only grows," Rafati said.

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