Are the Iran nuclear talks deadlocked?

Apr 29, 2022 | AIJAC staff

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosts Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in January: A new Iran nuclear deal would be a boon to Russia and allied anti-democratic forces (Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosts Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in January: A new Iran nuclear deal would be a boon to Russia and allied anti-democratic forces (Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)

Update from AIJAC

04/22 #03


Numerous news reports, such as this one from Politico, are saying that the talks about a renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran have now “reached a complete standstill.” The main sticking point is an Iranian demand that the US lift a terrorist designation on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a demand not directly relevant to the terms of the nuclear deal – which the US Administration is apparently refusing. This Update looks at this frozen state of play in the talks, including the IRGC controversy.

We lead with a valuable summary of current developments in the talks from the Washington think tank JINSA. It assembles the various signs that the US Biden Administration has decided not to accede to Teheran’s demand regarding the IRGC  – unless there is a reciprocal concession on a non-nuclear issue from Iran. It also highlights the growing pressure facing the Administration from critics of its stance on the Iran nuclear issue from both major US political parties in the US Congress. For this essential backgrounder on the current situation in the nuclear talks, CLICK HERE.

Next, American Iran analyst Jason Brodsky weighs into the debate about lifting the terrorist designation of the IRGC. He especially focuses on “so-called” creative solutions, – such as proposals to lift the ban on the IRGC but keep one on the Quds Force, the IRGC’s extraterritorial wing. He strongly argues that the Quds Force is not separate from the IRGC, but its “beating heart”, and a terrorist designation on the whole Corps is both justified and highly necessary. For all the details of his argument,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, columnist Ben Cohen makes the argument that a return to the JCPOA would be a major blow to the new consensus among democracies that has been forged in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He notes that any such deal would require a major role for Russia, despite efforts to isolate and sanction it in all other international forums. Moreover, he adds, a deal would empower an Iranian regime which is very much an ally of Moscow and of the wider authoritarian bloc of which Russia is a key part. For Cohen’s full explanation of the likely global effects of a new nuclear deal, CLICK HERE.

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Iran Nuclear Talks Update

April 28, 2022
Jewish Institute for the National Security of America (JINSA)

A past round of nuclear talks with Iran. The current talks are suspended, and there appears little prospect they will resume anytime soon. (Photo: Copyright: Dragan TATIC, Creative Commons licence)

Talks remain paused as Iran continues to demand that the United States lift the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation, though Iranian and European officials appear eager to resume negotiations.

Recent comments from Iranian officials suggest a renewed urgency to resume talks in-person in Vienna.

  • Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called for a return to Vienna, saying on April 25, “it is appropriate that a face-to-face meeting is held as soon as possible,” and adding, “it is not yet decided where and when to have this meeting and at what level it should be held, but it is on the agenda.”
  • Khatibzadeh also said, “prolonging the pause in the negotiations is not in anyone’s interest,” clarifying that talks “have not stopped and are continuing through the coordinator of the Vienna negotiations.”
  •  European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borell and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abollahian spoke over the phone on April 22, with Borrell suggesting that “the EU’s coordinator for the talks, Enrique Mora, and Iran’s head nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri-Kani, are actively pursuing the resumption of negotiations.

Separately, a former senior member of Iran’s Parliament (Majlis) Ali Motahari alleged in an April 24 interview, “when we began our nuclear activity, our goal was indeed to build a bomb.” He added the objective of building a bomb was pursued and supported by “the entire regime, or at least, the people who started this activity.”

U.S. officials have now repeatedly stated that some form of “reciprocity” would be needed in order for the U.S. to lift the IRGC’s FTO designation, though they have yet to rule out lifting the designation and continue to show an interest in reaching an agreement.

  • The United States is not required to lift the FTO designation in order to resume compliance with the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement.
  • On April 28, an unnamed U.S. official was quoted in Politico saying “unless Iran agrees to take certain steps to assuage security concerns beyond the JCPOA, Washington will not lift the terror designation, which is itself beyond the JCPOA.” He added, “the Biden administration is highly unlikely at this point to drop the designation in the context of the JCPOA talks.”
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 26 that the only way the U.S. would agree to delist the IRGC would be “if Iran takes steps necessary to justify the lifting of that designation,” though he didn’t specify exactly what that would entail.
  • “We continue to believe that getting back into compliance with the agreement would be the best way to address the nuclear challenge imposed by Iran,” Blinken also said.
  • An April 25 report stated that a senior U.S. official claimed “in recent U.S. inter-agency debate” that the Department of Defense came out against delisting the IRGC unless Iran agrees to a reciprocal non-nuclear concession, such as committing to not target each U.S. officials.
  • The official added, “those against [the delisting] were DoD and, ultimately, the White House … Israel was not a key factor.”
  • Reports from Israeli news outlets this week strongly suggested that the United States is shifting away from lifting the FTO designation and moving toward accepting that an agreement cannot be reached.
  • KANN news reported on April 26 that the Biden administration is increasingly willing “to announce that the Iran nuclear-JCPOA talks in Vienna have failed,” adding that, in light of the stalemate over the FTO designation, “the chances of reaching an agreement have been ‘greatly reduced.’”
  • Also on April 26, The Jerusalem Post reported that “the U.S. is moving toward ending its efforts to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.” A senior diplomatic source told the outlet, “the chances of the US and Iran returning to the JCPOA are ‘slim to none.’”

In testimony to the US Congress, where increasing questions are being raised about the US Administration’s policy on negotiating a renewed nuclear deal, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised greater transparency. 

US Congressional opposition to the lack of transparency from the Biden administration regarding the status of negotiations continues to mount.

  • Testifying before Senate and House committees this week, Secretary Blinken repeated State Department Spokesman Ned Price’s recent misleading and inaccurate claims about Iranian aggression solely being a result of the US withdrawal from JCPOA and putting IRGC on FTO list.
  •  Blinken falsely claimed that from “2012 to 2018, there were virtually no attacks on American presence in the Middle East.” A recent JINSA National Security Brief shows that Iran engaged in repeated aggression during that period, such as naval harassment of U.S. vessels, including illegally seizing an American ship in January 2016.
  • Blinken agreed to hold an open hearing on Iran before Memorial Day, saying “we will make sure that we get that done.”
  • Reps. Claudia Tenney, María Elvira Salazar, Greg Steube, Ronny Jackson, and Don Bacon submitted a letter to the White House on April 26 pressing top administration officials to publicly brief Congress on diplomatic talks.
  •  “While Iran continues to utilize its terrorist proxies … senior administration officials like Rob Malley are dodging questions from Congress and the American people by refusing to appear in public before the Foreign Affairs Committee. Today, I call on President Biden to ensure his administration is transparent with the American people,” Rep. Tenney said.

Don’t Make Concessions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps

Instead of inventing “creative” solutions to appease Tehran’s extorters, it’s time for policymakers in the United States and Europe to accept the IRGC for what it is—a foreign terrorist organization in its entirety.

by Jason Brodsky

The National Interest, April 26

All of the vast Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, not just its extraterritorial arm, the Quds Force, is involved in external terrorism, despite misguided efforts to draw a distinction. (Photo attribution: Khamenei.ir, Creative common licence)

The debate over whether to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) has evolved. President Joe Biden appears to have ruled out an unconditional delisting of the IRGC in whole. The deliberations now are over whether Washington and Tehran will be prepared for a middle ground solution, that involves retaining the IRGC’s extraterritorial arm, the Quds Force, while removing the rest of the IRGC’s units from the FTO list in exchange for undefined concessions. But this kind of arrangement would invent an artificial distinction in the IRGC that does not exist.

The IRGC is more than just the Quds Force. The Quds Force is one of its smallest units with only 5,000 active officers, according to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimate, although some reports put it higher. It also does not account for the members of Iran’s broader Axis of Resistance, which is its proxy and partner network. But the number of pure Quds Force officers still pales in comparison to the IRGC’s Ground Force which stands at around 150,000 forces, the IRGC’s Navy with 20,000 personnel, the IRGC’s Aerospace Force with 15,000 members, and the Basij reserves with 450,000 strong. Thus, while the Quds Force receives outsized attention from the West given its sponsorship of terrorism, it is only a cog in the wheel of the guardsmen.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, appoints the IRGC’s top brass, including the Quds Force. Usually, these appointment announcements cite how Khamenei has approved a proposal from the IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami for these posts, even some at the deputy level. For example, when Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani’s deputy, Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh, assumed his position, Iranian media highlighted how it was Salami’s recommendation which Khamenei accepted that led to his elevation. This shows how involved the IRGC’s senior command, namely Salami, is in staffing the Quds Force leadership structure.

When Qassem Soleimani was head of the Quds Force, DIA noted that his “close relationship with Khamenei allow[ed] him to often directly advise and receive orders outside the traditional chain of command.” This was indicative of Soleimani’s special personal relationship with the supreme leader, and it is likely Ghaani has direct access to Khamenei as well. Nevertheless, it is not Ghaani who is a standing member of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) which drives security decision-making inside the confines of the supreme leader’s guidelines. I
nstead, Salami holds that seat for the IRGC in its entirety. In fact, in addition to Ghaani, the IRGC’s commander-in-chief maintains communication with members of Iran’s Axis of Resistance who are designated as FTOs themselves. For example, Salami spoke by phone with the Secretary-General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Ziyad al-Nakhalah during Operation Guardian of the Walls last year. He also met separately with Nakhalah and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh on the sidelines of Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration as president. The Quds Force should thus not be seen as a separate branch deserving of unique treatment from the rest of the IRGC hierarchy.

In terms of resourcing the Quds Force, the IRGC’s parent organization provides material support to its extraterritorial arm. When the U.S. government designated the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) in 2017, it did so for activities in support of the Quds Force. Most importantly, the U.S. Treasury Department revealed that the IRGC itself provides “training, personnel, and military equipment” to the Quds Force. It trained Quds Force personnel ahead of deployments to Syria and employed “at least hundreds” from the IRGC’s Ground Forces to assist in these operations, particularly through “critical combat support, including serving as snipers and machine gunners.” That is not to mention that the IRGC, and its Basij subunit, “recruited, trained, and facilitated the travel of Afghan and Pakistani nationals to Syria” to supplement Quds Force officers.

Likewise, officials from the IRGC Aerospace Force’s Al-Ghadir Missile Command, which is charged with overseeing Iran’s deployed missile force, have been intimately involved in Quds Force campaigns, particularly in Yemen in the transferring of technical expertise to the Houthis. The U.S. Treasury Department in 2018 sanctioned the commander of the Al-Ghadir Missile Command, Mahmoud Bagheri Kazemabad, who at the time oversaw “the transfer of missile components and the deployment of ballistic missile specialists across the region.” These ballistic missiles have been fired at U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, endangering Emiratis, Saudis, and Americans who live in these countries.

The terrorism-sponsoring Quds Force is not simply part of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, but, together with its late commander Qassem Soleimani, (second from right) is seen as the beating heart of the IRGC  – and arguably the regime itself (Photo: saeediex, shutterstock)

In fact, the Quds Force has drawn from senior commanders in other IRGC services in its theaters of battle. A case in point is Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in Syria in 2015. Before deploying there, he was deputy commander of the Basij and headed the Mohammad Rasulullah Corps in Tehran Province. The late deputy commander of the Quds Force, Mohammad Hejazi, was previously a commander of the Basij and the deputy commander-in-chief of the IRGC in its entirety, before assuming his last post. There is thus interoperability across branches of top officers.

This is critical as it shows the Quds Force is not just some special terrorist unit walled off from the IRGC’s other missions. Rather, it is at the beating heart of IRGC resourcing, despite its smaller size, and other IRGC components, like the Aerospace Force, supplement its efforts. Attempts to segregate the Quds Force from its IRGC parent organization, therefore, do not survive close scrutiny.

Delisting the IRGC as an FTO while retaining its Quds Force in its hall of infamy recalls the approach of some European governments—namely France and the European Union—which create fictitious distinctions between Hezbollah’s military and political wings in sanctions architecture. But this very approach is rejected by Hezbollah’s leadership itself. There are some who also argue that most of the IRGC’s forces are merely those fulfilling compulsory military service. However, the existence of conscripts does not negate the IRGC’s broader resourcing of terrorism across all its satellites.

In the end, Tehran has been employing the same playbook for over a year—dragging out the negotiations with world powers to advance its nuclear program while shortening and weakening the existing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and in the process attempting to notch a stronger agreement for itself through non-nuclear demands like the delisting of the IRGC as an FTO. Instead of inventing “creative” solutions to appease Tehran’s extorters, it’s time for policymakers in the United States and Europe to accept the IRGC for what it is—a foreign terrorist organization in its entirety.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.

A Revived Iran Deal Is Bad News for Democracy


by Ben Cohen

JNS.org, April 18, 2022

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is a salutary reminder of the lack of restraints facing authoritarian regimes when they decide to go to war, as well as the inability of the democratic nations confronting these same regimes to prevent mass atrocities. While the Ukrainian armed forces have chalked up some important victories around Kyiv and Chernihiv in the center and north of the country, the Kremlin’s assault continues unabated in the south and east, triggering new waves of refugees with fresh stories of Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Within this deadly dynamic, Western countries have, against the expectations of many observers, found a strong voice and a clear position. For Germany and Sweden, the Russian invasion has put paid to pacifistic, non-military foreign policies for the time being. Within the European Union, tough sanctions against Russia have been accompanied by an impressive resolve among the bloc’s leading executives to choke the Russian economy to its fullest extent. Meanwhile, the United States, in sharp decline as a global power for more than a decade, has found itself defending values like freedom and tolerance against Russian censorship and nationalist chauvinism.

These last developments are welcome, though it is sobering to note that it always takes a crisis or a conflict for Western nations to recognize that their systems of government are worth defending. Arguably more so now than at any other time since the 9/11 atrocities and their aftermath, the citizens of liberal democratic countries have been made acutely aware of how perilous life would be under a dictator like Vladimir Putin.

Yet the Western response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t quite amount to a foreign-policy reset. Particularly in Washington, DC, a profound fear remains of falling into “a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy; a mindset that put a premium on unilateral US action over the painstaking work of building international consensus; a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported,” as former President Barack Obama put it when assessing his predecessor’s foreign policy during his announcement of the Iran nuclear deal in August 2015.

The effort to revive the Iran deal at negotiations in Vienna that have dragged on for more than a year shows less of an international consensus and more of a frustrating deadlock. And yet US diplomats continue to insist that this country and the world will be made safer if we re-enter the deal abandoned with great fanfare by former President Donald Trump’s administration.

The pitfalls of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the technical name for the deal agreed in 2015 between the Iranian the regime on the one hand and the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and the European Union, plus Germany on the other—were laid bare at the time. The revived deal would still contain a fatal “sunset clause,” meaning that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development would fall away at the turn of the next decade. It would also provide Iran with immediate relief from sanctions, despite the fact that the regime continues to relish its destabilizing role in the Middle East. As for international oversight, the original deal did not allow for “anytime, anywhere” inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors—the only nuclear oversight arrangement worth having—and neither will any renewed deal.

Over the last month especially, the negotiations in Vienna have degenerated into a farce overshadowed by the Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Given that Russia is a party to the negotiations—because if you want to forge an “international consensus” on Iran, you can’t leave Moscow out—one can understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s negotiators would want to play a wrecking role at this time. The Russian envoy in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, duly said at the beginning of March that Moscow’s agreement to any renewed deal depended on Russia’s extensive economic and commercial relations with Iran being exempted from the punishing sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine.

As Russia is a key party to the Iranian nuclear negotiations, it is no surprise that Moscow is trying to leverage those negotiations to serve its own interests in the wake of the Ukraine invasion (Image, Aksabir, Shutterstock). 

Rumors abounded that the Iranians were less than pleased with this demand, but Tehran would never publicly berate its Russian ally, as that sort of treatment is reserved for the United States. In a speech to government officials last week, the regime’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said nothing about Russia or Ukraine. However, he did say that the talks in Vienna were “going well”—not because an agreement is imminent, but because Iran’s delegation has resisted unreasonable US pressure to acquiesce to an unfavorable deal.

As for the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration has of late been trying to dampen expectations of a deal. “I’m not overly optimistic at the prospects of actually getting an agreement to conclusion, despite efforts we’ve put into it, and despite the fact that I believe that our security would be better off,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told MSNBC at the beginning of April. Pressed on whether he regarded the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization as correct, Blinken said he did, but he would not be drawn into discussing whether the United States would abandon this designation, which would mean accepting a key demand of the Iranians. Biden is reportedly opposed to such a measure, but he may yet face appeals from his subordinates to back down if a deal looks imminent.

Those pundits trying to sell a renewed Iran deal make the point that the IRGC designation was largely symbolic, and that symbolism should never override pragmatism. But policies that have a real-world impact cannot be dismissed as merely symbolic; removal of the terrorist designation would be interpreted as a political and strategic victory by the IRGC without providing America and its allies with leverage to counter its interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries in the region. In effect, it would place a seal of approval on Iran’s influence in the Middle East at just the time when we are learning all over again the havoc that rogue, anti-democratic regimes can wreak.

A renewed Iran deal would be a grave setback not just for the security of the Middle East, but for the newly found assertiveness of Western countries facing down Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. It’s time to bring the negotiators in Vienna home.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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