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A “Less for Less” Nuclear Deal with Iran?

Jun 9, 2023 | AIJAC staff

Image: Shutterstock, Stuart Miles
Image: Shutterstock, Stuart Miles

Update 06/23 #02

 

There are increasing reports that the US Biden Administration, together with its European allies, may be close to reaching a deal with Iran for a temporary freeze on some uranium enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. This Update features reporting and comment on the details and implications of such an agreement – known as a “less for less” agreement because it is so much less comprehensive than an agreement like the 2015 JCPOA deal.

As a starting point, AIJAC’s Ran Porat has just summarised the latest International Atomic Energy Agency reports on Iran – and why they seemed to prove that a limited deal will do almost nothing to stop Teheran’s nuclear weapons progress.

First up is a general summary of what is being reported about the proposed “less for less” deal from Benjamin Weinthal, a Berlin-based reporter specialising in Middle East policy. The piece also includes quotes from US-based critics of a  deal along the lines that are reportedly being considered, as well as what the Biden Administration and Iranians are saying about the negotiations for such a potential agreement. Further, the story also features Iran’s claim earlier this week to have developed a hypersonic missile capable of eluding missile defence systems. For Weinthal’s complete report, CLICK HERE. More background on the “less for less” deal idea comes from the JINSA thinktank.

Next up, veteran Israeli strategic studies academic Efraim Inbar argues that Israel needs to strongly reject any such “less for less” deal with Iran. He explains that compared to Israel, the US is less worried about a nuclear Iran, and really would like to simply kick the can down the road on this issue, but Israel cannot afford to allow it to do so. He also notes the US is attempting to link the issue with Administration efforts to encourage Israeli-Saudi normalisation, but Inbar argues this also should not change Jerusalem’s approach to a deal with Iran. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, US-based Iran expert Saeed Ghasseminejad – in a piece written before the latest speculation over an imminent  “less for less” deal – argues that the US Administration is failing to develop serious policies that would fulfil its pledge to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He notes that the Administration recently briefed Members of Congress about Iran’s rapid nuclear advances – but seemed to have little to no plan for what to do about it. Ghasseminejad argues the US urgently needs a Plan B to stop a nuclear Iran if its increasingly unrealistic hopes for a serious agreement fall though – and offers some suggestions for what that might look like. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Biden Administration under fire for Iran nuke and hostage deal that could net regime billions

 

State sponsor of terrorism Iran reportedly stands to gain $17 billion in new deal

By Benjamin Weinthal 

Fox News, June 8, 2023

 

JERUSALEM — The Biden administration is facing intense criticism for its reported willingness to pump $17 billion dollars into the coffers of the world’s worst state-sponsor of terrorism — the Islamic Republic of Iran — to reach a controversial deal to impose temporary restrictions on Iran’s illicit nuclear program and secure the release of American hostages.

“When Joe Biden was elected, Iran’s nuclear program was in a box, and their economy was in a downward spiral,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Fox News Digital. “Biden looked the other way as the Ayatollah steadily advanced to nuclear weapons, and the regime resumed exports of millions of barrels of oil a day.

“All the while, Iran became Putin’s No. 1 military backer. Biden has already been funding both sides of the war in Ukraine, and so it would be appalling but unsurprising if he started openly sending billions more to the Ayatollah.”

Cruz’s criticism of Biden’s Iran policy follows a report in Iran International, a Washington D.C.-based independent news organization, that a deal might be imminent between the U.S. and Tehran over sanctions.

In exchange for economic incentives reported to be $17 billion for the clerical regime, the rulers of Iran would release three American hostages and freeze certain aspects of their alleged nuclear weapons work.

According to the Iran International report, funds in Iraqi banks totaling as much as $10 billion (or more) could be funneled to Iran and would be linked to restrictions on Tehran’s illegal atomic program. Iraq purchases electricity and natural gas from Tehran, but it is prohibited by U.S. sanctions from transferring dollar payments to Iran.

Iraq is only permitted to transfer funds to Iran in Iraqi dinars. As a result of tough sanctions on Iran, Tehran can only use the dinars to buy merchandise from Iraq. Tehran views this system as a trade balance and maintains there is an outstanding Iraqi debt.

Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Mohammad Kazem Al-Sadegh, told an Iraqi news outlet this year that Iraq owes Iran $11 billion for imports of gas and electricity.

South Korea purchased $7 billion in Iranian oil prior to the imposition of comprehensive energy sanctions on Iran in 2019. The money is being held by South Korea.

When asked about the Iran International report and a new deal with Iran’s regime, a State Department spokesperson did not deny the report.

“Make no mistake: the United States of America will protect and defend its citizens,” the spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “To that end, we remain committed to securing the freedom of all U.S. nationals who continue to be wrongfully detained overseas, and we are working relentlessly to bring all wrongfully detained nationals home. We will not stop until they are reunited with their loved ones.”

“The United States should never spend one penny in ransom on payments to the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism,” noted former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, who served during the Trump administration.


“The United States should never spend one penny in ransom on payments to the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism”: Criticism of the proposed deal from former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

“Secretary Pompeo and President Trump brought two Americans home from Iranian prison without paying a cent. Giving Iran billions of dollars would only incentivize more hostage-taking and lead more Americans and their families to suffer. And fuel more Iranian terrorism around the world.”

President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018 because his administration argued it did not stop Tehran from building nuclear weapons and continued to permit Iran to fund terrorism and develop long-range missiles.

The State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations has classified Iran’s regime as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism.

Asked about a Financial Times report from last week about secret meetings between Iran Special Envoy Rob Malley and Iran’s U.N. ambassador, U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said on Monday, “We have the means to communicate with Iran and deliver messages to them that are in America’s interest to do so. We’re not going to detail the contents of those messages or the means of those deliveries.”

Middle East news outlets are also reporting on accelerated talks between the U.S. and Iran. The Israeli media outlet Haaretz on Wednesday reported that defense officials for the Jewish state believe a deal is moving at a fast pace, and an agreement could be reached within weeks. The newspaper wrote “some $20 billion in Iranian assets from frozen bank accounts” could be transferred to Iran’s regime.

The elements of the proposed deal would compel Iran to stop enriching uranium at high levels in exchange for significant sanctions relief. Iran’s regime was caught in early 2023 enriching near weapons-grade uranium purity for an atomic bomb.

There are also three U.S. nationals being held hostage in Iran — Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz. A fourth hostage is Jamshid Sharmahd, a German citizen and long-term legal resident of California who was abducted by Iran’s regime in Dubai in 2020.

Iran’s regime sentenced journalist Sharmahd to death this year for alleged dissident activities in a show trial devoid of standard judicial norms, according to human rights groups.

The Iranian regime-controlled Mehr News Agency reported Tuesday that Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, said, “The [nuclear agreement] text is basically ready and is awaiting both parties’ signature,” adding that “the time is ripe for the deal.

“If the Americans have the will, it could be signed quickly. But, again, Iran is not going to sit and wait. The world is changing, and Iran is using those opportunities to the utmost.”

Iran has turned a large sector of its economy into a war economy. The regime announced Tuesday it created the first domestically-made hypersonic ballistic missile.

“It can bypass the most advanced anti-ballistic missile systems of the United States and the Zionist regime, including Israel’s Iron Dome,” Iranian state TV declared.

Iran boasted this week of its claimed ability to build and launch hypersonic missiles similar to this Russian Avengard. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

If the estimated $17 billion in frozen assets is released to Iran, it would come at a time when Iran is also in need of a financial shot in the arm to help finance repression of unrest in the nation. Starting in mid-September of last year, the country has been gripped by nationwide protests against the regime’s reported torture and murder of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Iran’s notorious morality police arrested Amini in Tehran for her alleged failure to cover her hair properly with a hijab. Her alleged brutal murder by the regime sparked outrage in Iran and across the world.

The demonstrations have tapered off, but the population is restive. And the regime desperately needs an infusion of cash to aid its vast security apparatus to counter new waves of protests, Iran analysts note.

Benjamin Weinthal reports on IsraelIranSyriaTurkey and Europe for Fox News Digital. Benjamin has contributed articles to The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, Forbes and The New York Post.


Israel must say no to a new US-Iran nuclear understanding – opinion

It is beyond reason why the US wants to help a radical Islamist rabid anti-American regime intent to take over the Middle East

By EFRAIM INBAR

Jerusalem Post, JUNE 6, 2023 04:07


“American diplomacy wants to kick Iran’s potential for building atomic bombs down the road, even if it results in an awful agreement”: Iran-US talks in 2015 – Robert Malley, on the far-left, is said to be leading the current negotiations. (Photo: 506 collection / Alamy Stock Photo). 

 

The Biden administration is working assiduously to reach a new agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. The current formula is less for less, meaning less stringent demands from Iran in the nuclear arena in exchange for only partially removing economic sanctions.

The US hopes to freeze the Iranian nuclear program by accepting the progress made so far and canceling some economic sanctions that hurt Iran. Despite the sanctions and the international opprobrium, Iran has continued the enrichment of uranium to higher levels (around 60%), and according to several reports, it has progressed in its weaponization program.

Furthermore, its proxies show no sign of moderation, and the vitriolic rhetoric against Israel continues. Considering Iran’s past illicit behavior, there is hardly a guarantee that Iran will not violate the current proposed agreement.

US less concerned with a nuclear Iran

Nevertheless, American diplomacy wants to kick Iran’s potential for building atomic bombs down the road, even if it results in an awful agreement. It seems Washington will sign on any piece of paper that Tehran representatives countersign. This unfortunate policy is because Washington is busy on other fronts, mainly China and Ukraine, while it is tired of interventions in the Middle East.

Moreover, the American threat perception of a nuclear Iran is lower than Israel’s. Iran is far away and the rosy-tinted liberal spectacles of this administration (like Barack Obama’s) belittle the threats to America and its regional allies. In any case, Washington is reluctant to use force against Iran’s nuclear program.

With few exceptions, the US refrains from employing military force against Iranian aggressive behaviour against its allies, such as the 2019 attack on Saudi oil infrastructure and the hijacking of several oil tankers on the high seas. Even attacks on American military installations in Iraq and Syria remain unanswered.

Tehran sees itself in an excellent international and regional position. As a result of American meekness, Iran is not afraid of American military strikes, and it continues to play challenging to catch in the nuclear talks. Iran is encouraged by its partnership with Russia, which needs its drones. Tehran also found China a source of support for selling oil and enhancing Beijing’s international status when it agreed to Chinese mediation with Saudi Arabia.

IT GRADUALLY lost its pariah status as the Gulf States negotiated with Tehran. Even Cairo is ready to renew diplomatic relations with Tehran, while Iran’s ally, Bashar Assad of Syria, is returning to the fold of the Arab League. Under these circumstances, Iran has the upper hand in the nuclear negotiations, and if an agreement is reached, it will hardly please Jerusalem.

The Americans are trying to sweeten the deal for Israel by convincing Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords formally. It is unclear whether the Saudi de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, MBS, is ready to estrange the more conservative elements in the Kingdom by having diplomatic relations with Israel before his rule is stable. After all, almost everything he can get from Israel is within reach of under-the-table interactions.

Yet even if the United States is ready to deliver what MBS asks from Washington and MBS comes along, Israel should not be tempted to legitimize the quid pro quo the Americans offer to Iran and Saudi Arabia.


US Secretary of State Antony Binken meeting with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh this week. The US is trying to sweeten a potential Iran deal by progressing Israeli-Saudi normalisation, but Inbar argues Jerusalem should not agree to link the two (Photo: US State Department). 

Among other things, Saudi Arabia demands the US help build a complete Uranium production cycle, including enrichment. Saudi Arabia has Uranium ore in its territory and wants to take advantage of these findings. The Saudi leadership wishes to acquire the same nuclear status that the Obama Administration awarded Iran by signing the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA).

American transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia will precipitate a nuclear race in the region. Turkey has already expressed interest in the nuclear option and Egypt will follow suit. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East region is a strategic nightmare for Israel; therefore, it should do everything possible to oppose it. A Saudi embassy in Israel is not worth the strategic risk.

Similarly, Israel should reject the irresponsible American position toward Iran. There is no reason in the world to accept a nuclear agreement with Iran that will allow it to be closer to the bomb, fuel nuclear proliferation, and receive more money for doing more mischief in the Middle East.

It is beyond reason why the US wants to help a radical Islamist rabid anti-American regime intent to take over the Middle East. It is not easy to confront the US, but there are times when strategic clarity must be loudly voiced.

The writer is the president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS).


A Perilous Equation: Khamenei’s Nuclear Ambitions and Washington’s Inaction

Saeed Ghasseminejad

The National Interest, June 1, 2023

Washington acknowledges that there is no simple way to return to the original nuclear deal with Iran, yet the lack of a viable alternative leaves the Biden Administration seemingly rudderless.

 


Advanced Iranian centrifuges at Natanz – the Biden Administration admits Iran is rapidly advancing toward nuclear weapons capabilities, but appears to lack any idea what to do about it other than hope and pray for a new nuclear deal (Photo: ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo). 

 

At a closed-door Iran briefing in May, Biden administration officials reported to the U.S. Senate on the rapid advance of Tehran’s nuclear program. Senators who emerged from the briefing could not point to any clear plans the administration has to stop Iran from approaching the nuclear weapons threshold. Negotiations have stalled, but the White House also lacks a plan to turn up the pressure. Rather, the administration appears content to kick the can down the road, a strategy that may soon become untenable as Tehran’s nuclear capabilities approach a critical juncture—beyond a certain point, sanctions, and diplomatic pressure will not be able to deter Iran from building a bomb.

Inertia prevails in the White House even though the administration insists it is fully committed to preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Biden’s emphasis on great power competition entails a focus on China and Russia, not Iran. His priority for the Middle East is avoiding any new military intervention. Persian Gulf oil once commanded Washington’s attention, but the shale revolution has made the United States the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, so there is less pressure to play an active role.

The Biden administration is also short on foreign policy bandwidth. The war in Ukraine and fears of a confrontation over Taiwan are both consuming senior officials’ attention.

Clearly, the White House would like to conclude a new nuclear deal with Iran, but the changing nature of Tehran’s nuclear program makes it impossible to return to the original deal from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. Iran’s clerical regime has enriched uranium to much higher levels than ever before, approaching the production of weapons-grade material it could use in a warhead. Most of this progress occurred after Biden made clear he wanted a new deal—Tehran understood this meant the White House would tolerate new provocations.

Washington acknowledges that there is no simple way to return to the original nuclear deal and a longer and stronger deal is needed. Yet the lack of a viable alternative leaves the Biden administration seemingly rudderless. Instead, the White House appears to be stalling for time, hoping some unforeseen bit of good luck resolves its nuclear dilemma. But deferring decisive action may soon become impracticable. Time is on the side of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Soon, no combination of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions will be sufficient to stop him if he decides he wants the bomb.

The Iranian economy continues to struggle, yet Biden’s decision not to enforce sanctions vigorously has strengthened Khamenei’s hand. The regime continues to grapple with very high inflation, massive devaluation of its currency, and sluggish growth. Yet Iran still has substantial export revenue thanks to the lack of sanctions enforcement. In the Persian year 1401 (April 2022 to March 2023), Tehran exported $53 billion in non-oil goods. In just the first half of that year (April 2022 to October 2022), Tehran exported $29.4 billion in oil, gas, and condensate, according to the Central Bank of Iran. For comparison, between April 2020 and October 2020, Tehran managed only $8.6 billion of such exports. The majority of Iran’s crude oil exports go to China, which is glad to help undermine U.S. leverage.


The Iranian economy continues to struggle, including suffering high inflation, leaving it vulnerable to existing sanctions – if the US were prepared to vigorously enforce them (Photo: Shutterstock, part).  

Diplomacy with rogue states rarely results in disarmament. Even North Korea, with far fewer natural resources than Tehran, proved itself capable of withstanding a combination of economic and diplomatic pressure. It strung out negotiations over multiple decades, all the while building its nuclear arsenal. Libya did agree to dismantle its nuclear program, but only when the alternative appeared to be U.S. military intervention. In contrast, Israeli airstrikes destroyed both Syrian and Iraqi reactors.

Instead of its current policy (or lack thereof), the United States needs a “Plan B” that restores economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on Tehran. The Iranian nuclear program has reached a point where containment is not enough; rather, the United States needs to reverse the advances the program has made over the past two and a half years. The first step is to restore the credibility of U.S. military option through bold actions, such as the 2020 elimination of Qassem Soleimani, or destroying vessels that harass the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Washington could also enforce crippling sanctions, including using the Navy to stop Tehran’s exports of sanctioned goods such as crude oil and petrochemical products. If all else fails, and Tehran makes it clear that will acquire the bomb no matter what, then what is left is implementing a comprehensive plan to support the revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow Iran’s clerical regime.

The only alternative to Plan B is to accept the emergence of a nuclear-armed radical Islamist regime.

Dr. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), specializing in Iran’s economy and financial markets, sanctions, and illicit finance. 

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