The Biden administration was on the verge of agreeing to an even weaker version of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which would relieve Iran of the sanctions imposed by President Trump, when the Russians through a monkey wrench into the negotiations, forcing them to be suspended last week, just before a final deal was reached.
The details of the new deal have been kept secret from Congress and the American people, but sources familiar with the negotiations told reporters that it would provide another financial windfall for Iran, while allowing it to produce enough enriched uranium to start building nuclear weapons as early as 2025, when the restrictions in the original 2015 deal start to expire.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief coordinating the Vienna talks with Iran on reviving the 2015 deal, said last week that “a final text [of the new deal] is essentially ready and on the table,” with the only remaining obstacle being a demand by the Russians for an exemption from all Ukraine-related sanctions for their future financial dealings with Iran.
A senior US official confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that an agreement was “within reach,” and that only a few issues were outstanding when the talks in Vienna were broken off because of Russia’s demand, which the official called, “the most serious stumbling block and obstacle to reaching a deal.”
SAME OLD TEAM REPEATING THE SAME MISTAKES
Many critics of the Biden administration’s foreign policy are actually hoping that the tentative Vienna agreement does collapse, believing it is even more dangerous than the 2015 nuclear deal. That is because Biden’s foreign policy team is dominated by the same Obama administration officials who helped then-Secretary of State John Kerry negotiate the original deal, and who still refuse to recognize its fatal flaws.
For example, Rob Malley, who currently serves as Biden’s Special Representative for Iran, had been Kerry’s chief negotiator for the 2015 deal. After having served as a human rights specialist on President Clinton’s National Security Council, Malley held the post of program director for the Middle East for the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based think tank. In 2008, Obama’s presidential campaign severed all ties with Malley, who had served as its informal advisor, after it emerged that while at the International Crisis Group, Malley had been in discussions with Hamas, even though it was listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump condemned the 2015 deal as a terrible mistake, and promised that as president he would renegotiate it or abandon it. He chose the latter option in 2018, and reimposed sanctions because Iran’s leaders were unwilling to even consider renegotiating the original agreement.
By contrast, in 2020, Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to return the US to the agreement, which is formally known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), by renegotiating a better, more comprehensive deal with the Iranians.
Shortly after taking office, Biden rejoined the other countries that signed the JCPOA in 2015 deal — Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. The Vienna talks were another effort to renegotiate the deal, but Iran remained as intransigent as ever. It refused to agree to tougher restrictions on its nuclear program, while at the same time racing to enrich large quantities uranium, in violation of the terms of the nuclear deal, and rendering any new deal virtually worthless. Meanwhile, the US and its European allies were once again worn down by Iran’s stubborn negotiating tactics, and eventually gave in to many of Iran’s demands, which were supported by Russia and China.
IS IT ALREADY TOO LATE FOR AN AGREEMENT?
The stated goal of the talks was to draft a step-by-step process by which Iran would return to compliance with the original nuclear deal, in return for the US lifting most its sanctions on Iran.
But Iran’s deliberate stalling tactics have worked. According to weapons control experts, the Islamic regime is now just weeks away from attaining an independent capability of building nuclear weapons. Even if it there is a last-minute deal to return Iran to compliance with the 2015 deal, it may already be too late. Iran has already reached the technical threshold of nuclear weapons capability, and many of the original deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will soon expire, which would then leave Iran legally free to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
US and European negotiators realized that time was rapidly running out, so they accelerated the pace of talks in Vienna to a round-the-clock basis, before the new unacceptable Russian demand brought them to a sudden halt last week.
“A good deal is on the table,” tweeted the chief French negotiator, Philippe Errera. “There is a critical urgency to conclude and a real risk that, failing this, the agreement will fall apart.”
British negotiator Stephanie Al-Qaq agreed that a “fair and comprehensive deal on table — ready for conclusion,” but that, “external factors [Russia’s new demand] must be resolved in next few days or agreement likely to unravel.”
Another complication is that Iran has refused to negotiate directly with the American delegation, and has insisted on using the other participants, in particular the Russians, as mediators with the US government. Russia has taken advantage of this position to demand the addition of new provisions which have nothing to do with the deal’s main purpose, restoring control over Iran’s nuclear program.
RUSSIA DEMANDING EXCEPTIONS TO UKRAINE SANCTIONS
According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia is demanding guarantees to ensure that if the Iran nuclear deal is restored, US sanctions on Russia over Ukraine “will not, in any way, damage our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation” with Iran. Such a guarantee could enable Russia to evade the Ukraine-related international sanctions on its economy by funneling all its transactions through Iran.
US and EU officials have said that Russia has promised to return in a few days with more details of its sanctions-exemption requests. Until then, one of the US officials said, “We cannot finalize the negotiation.”
Western negotiators initially rejected the Russian demand as irrelevant to the main issue of the negotiations. In response, Russia’s chief negotiator in the Vienna talks, Mikhail Uylyanov, said that his country’s demand for sanctions exemption was not the only issue holding up completion of the negotiations, and that since the talks were still ongoing, Russia had every right to introduce the Ukraine sanctions issue.
CAN RUSSIA’S ROLE BE REPLACED?
If both the US and its allies and Russia stands by their positions on Russia’s new demand, it may prove impossible to finalize the revised deal with Iran. Under the original 2015 agreement, Russia is also responsible for taking custody of Iran’s excess stockpile of enriched uranium, supervising the conversion of Iran’s formerly secret underground nuclear research facility at Fordow into a strictly non-military operation, and providing Iran with enriched uranium fuel for its civilian nuclear reactors.
If the West tries to go forward with a new Iran deal without Russia, its roles in the original agreement would have to be reassigned to other signatories. However, Russia’s allies, Iran and China, would then likely refuse to agree to any new version of the 2015 deal that does not include Russian participation.
Another option would be for the US and its allies to offer Iran an interim deal that would freeze some of Iran’s current nuclear activities and force it to surrender some of its current enriched uranium stockpile in return for some level of immediate sanctions relief while awaiting the outcome of the war in Ukraine. However, in the past, Iran has always rejected any interim deal proposal which would require it to roll back the progress its nuclear program has made.
The clock is ticking. Time is running out to renegotiate the basic terms of the 2015 deal before Iran passes the nuclear weapons threshold, making any new version of the agreement moot. In the meantime, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that Iran “will not allow any external factor to impact the national interests for removal of the sanctions.”
US IGNORING IRAN’S NEWEST PROVOCATION
The most recent complicating factor in the negotiations was an Iranian missile attack in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq over the weekend, which came so uncomfortably close to an American military base that it forced US troops to run for cover. The missile strike was very close to the large new US consulate in Erbil, the unofficial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It was not an accident. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps publicly took credit for the attack, in which a dozen ballistic missiles were launched from within Iranian territory. The IRGC claimed that the strike was aimed at a “secret Israeli strategic center” in Erbil, and warned that “any repetition of attacks by Israel will be met with a harsh, decisive, and destructive response” in revenge. The missile attack did not result in any casualties or damage to the US consulate, but it further dampened hopes that the Vienna talks with Iran could successfully resume and conclude in the short time remaining.
On Sunday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in a Fox News interview, said that US officials are still seeking an immediate agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite the missile strike in Iraq.
“If Iran has a nuclear weapon,” Sherman pointed out, “its ability to project power into the Middle East and to deter us, our allies, and partners, is enormous, so President Biden believes very strongly, as does Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, as do I, that we need to make sure that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, and then we also need to deal with their malign behavior in the region.”
In a separate CBS News interview Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also indicated that the attack in Erbil would not interfere with the US push for an agreement in Vienna. “Of course, we condemn Iran for carrying out this attack,” Sullivan said. “We’re still gathering information on what precisely the target was. What we know at this hour is that no US facilities were hit. No US persons were harmed. But the United States is absolutely clear — we will do whatever it takes to defend our people, our interests, and our allies, and we are in consultation with the Iraqi government and the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, in part to help them get the missile defense capabilities to be able to defend themselves in their cities.”
When asked about the prospects for resuming the suspended talks in Vienna, Sullivan said that as things stand now, “the various negotiators are back home in their capitals and we will have to see what happens in the days ahead with respect to the diplomacy around the nuclear deal. One thing I will say is that the only thing more dangerous than Iran armed with ballistic missiles and advanced military capabilities is an Iran that has all of those things and a nuclear weapon — and President Biden is still determined to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
While the Biden White House is willing to ignore the provocative Iranian attack, which was clearly meant as a threat to the continued US presence in Iraq, it is likely to become an issue for members of Congress who will want to thoroughly review any revision to the 2015 nuclear deal before it goes into effect.
Neither Biden administration spokesperson mentioned that the White House is under intense political pressure to provide American consumers relief from the skyrocketing cost of gasoline at the pump. If the Trump-era sanctions were removed, Iran could provide some of that relief by eventually making up to one million more barrels of oil a day available on the international market.
BIDEN SEEMS READY TO SACRIFICE ISRAEL’S SECURITY
Israel’s concern is that President Biden will lift sanctions on Iran and further endanger Israel’s national security so that he can point to something specific he has done to provide relief to US consumers from high gas prices, without having to declare a temporary truce in his ongoing war against American fossil fuel producers.
Those fears were expressed Sunday in a video released by former Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu in both Hebrew and English, addressed not only to Israelis, but also to every American family.
Netanyahu said that in light of the Iranian missile strike in Iran, which was deliberately intended to intimidate the Biden administration, it was “absurd” for America to continue participating in the negotiations in Vienna.
“The desperate rush to sign this flawed nuclear agreement with Iran is not only absurd, it’s downright dangerous,” Netanyahu said. “Yesterday, Iran fired missiles in the vicinity of the American consulate in Iraq, and the US continues to charge ahead, along with the other powers, to sign a nuclear agreement that will give the ayatollahs a nuclear arsenal. It would also relieve sanctions and give them hundreds of billions of dollars in order to continue the terror that they waged yesterday and wage every day throughout the Middle East and the world.”
“This agreement is even worse than its predecessor,” Netanyahu added, “because in three years’ time, under this agreement, Iran will be a threshold nuclear state. It will have enough enriched uranium to create dozens and dozens of nuclear bombs and it will have the ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] to deliver them to any place in the United States.”
To underline his message, the caption beneath Netanyahu’s picture in the video asked, “Have we learned nothing?”
WHY IRAN CAN’T BE TRUSTED
Conveying a similar message in an op-ed published on the Fox News website, former Israeli ambassador to the US Danny Danon observed that, “since the return to the negotiating table in Vienna, three of the US top negotiators have resigned, stating that there is no future to the agreement and that the Biden administration is being too lenient with Iran. The US has not paused to question these notable resignations and has plowed ahead regardless, notwithstanding the fact that the Iranian regime will not negotiate directly with them, nor that they are negotiating with a country that burns their flags and has publicly labeled them ‘the enemy.’”
According to Danon, “This revised 2022 deal does nothing to factor in the progress that Iran has made in recent years, nor does it address the clauses that have already expired, or those that will expire in the short term. Moreover, since the original deal was signed in 2015, Iran has knowingly been in breach many times, and has broken the agreement to enrich uranium to 60%, which is exceptionally close to weapon-grade nuclear capabilities.
“In recent years the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] discovered many undeclared nuclear sites in Iran. These will not be investigated under the new agreement. Like the original JCPOA, this deal entirely ignores Iran’s research and development into long-range ballistic missiles and its sponsoring of terror throughout the region…
“In exchange for signing the deal, and the billions of dollars the regime will reap, Iran has been promised that sanctions will be lifted on scores of terror organizations and individuals that have committed some of the worst possible atrocities. These include the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which have conducted dozens of terror attacks globally.
“It also includes the lifting of sanctions on individuals such as [Iran’s President] Ebrahim Raisi, also known as the Butcher of Tehran… as well as for the murderous [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” Danon noted.
WHY THE SANCTIONS SHOULD REMAIN
Other notorious Iranian terrorists who would be freed from US sanctions under the terms of the new deal would include Mohsen Rezaei, the IRGC commander responsible for the suicide bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 18, 1994, which killed 85 people.
Sanctions would also be lifted on the terrorist mastermind who planned the AMIA attack, Ali Akbar Velayati, who is currently a senior advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, who was responsible for the suicide bombings at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon, on October 23, 1983, which killed 241 US service members in a Marines barracks, as well as a second blast killing 58 French soldiers who were part of the same multinational peace force.
In addition, the deal being finalized in Vienna would also lift US economic sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the National Development Fund (NDF), which had nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program. They were imposed under US counterterrorism laws because they had provided billions of dollars to the IRGC, the Quds Force, Hezbollah, as well as the devastating 2019 missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure launched by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“The deal being concluded in Vienna,” Danon argues, “is not only a danger to the oppressed people of Iran and to Israel, whom the Iranian regime has threatened to destroy. It is also a danger to the Middle East region, to US forces in the region, and to the world. This bad deal unshackles Iran to not only continue its current export of terror but enables the regime to step up its atrocities, both toward its own people and throughout the region.”
STATE DEPARTMENT PROTEST RESIGNATIONS WERE IGNORED
Many of the same concerns over the pending revisions to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran have been raised by Gabriel Noronha, who served for two years in former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Iran Action Group during the Trump administration.
Noronha notes that the resignation in protest by three career State Department officials from the Vienna negotiating team should have prompted the Biden White House or Secretary of State Blinken to recall Malley and launch a review before continuing with the talks, but that did not happen.
“Their failure to do so is a sign either of a troubling lack of attention to the talks, or else the possibility that Malley… has been given a free hand to negotiate whatever he wants, as long as he gets Iran to sign,” Noronha wrote in an essay published online in The Tablet. He points out that Mikhail Ulyanov, the chief Russian negotiator in Vienna, bragged in a recent interview that Russia was able to team up with China and Iran to get Iran a much better deal, and that “Iran got much more than it could expect.”
PARDONING THE CRIMES OF THE IRGC
Most troubling to Noronha is the fact that, long before the Vienna talks were showing any signs of progress, Rob Malley made persistent attempts to get the IRGC removed from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list, despite the fact that it “has plotted and carried out terrorist attacks in 35 countries around the world… [and] is currently providing safe haven and logistical support for al-Qaida inside Iran…
“Instead of demanding that the Iranians cease conducting and supporting terrorism,” Noronha says, “Malley obliged repeated Iranian entreaties to remove the IRGC’s terror designation…
“[Malley] met severe resistance from startled career officials across government. Nevertheless, he persisted… At first, he proposed that it could be exchanged for an Iranian commitment to future talks on the terrorism and ‘regional issues’ files. [But] the Iranian negotiators and their Russian facilitators… asked for more. They demanded that the concession must be unconditional, and that no future talks would be acceptable.”
Apparently, their demand was accepted, because, according to Noronha’s sources in the diplomatic community, the State Department has now agreed to delist the IRGC as a terrorist organization, while Iran has yet to “come clean about its clandestine nuclear activities or committed to stop nuclear enrichment. Has the regime committed to stop supporting terror and taking American hostages? The short answer on all counts is no.”
NONE OF THE RESTRICTIONS WILL BE EXTENDED
“The JCPOA’s sunset clauses have not been extended at all,” Noronha writes. “Some JCPOA restrictions, like the United Nations arms embargo on Iran for importing or exporting conventional weapons, have already expired. All meaningful restrictions will expire over the next nine years. Iran will not make any concessions on its ballistic missile activity, its terrorist activity, its support for proxy groups, or its hostage-taking from the United States and other countries. But it will get money anyways,” Noronha notes bitterly.
He estimates that once the sanctions are removed, Iran will regain access to $90 billion in its foreign exchange reserves, and an additional $50-$55 billion in oil and petrochemical exports, which it will be free to spend in support of Islamic terrorist activities throughout the region and around the world.
“Personally,” Noronha adds, “the most troubling transfer of funds will be the $7 billion ransom payment the United States is preparing to pay for the release of four Americans from an Iranian jail… Seven billion dollars would amount to around one-third of Iran’s annual terror and security budget, fueling even more violence around the world and against Iranians.”
The new ransom payment would dwarf the $1.7 billion which President Obama gave Iran in 2016, including $400 million dollars in pallets of cash flown to Tehran, to buy the freedom of four innocent American hostages who had been seized. Noronha predicts that the new ransom payment will only serve to increase the incentive for Iran to continue its kidnapping racket.
But the veterans of Obama’s foreign policy team who are now in charge of President Biden’s foreign policy still refuse to admit their previous mistake. They are now eager to grasp at any excuse, including the current worldwide energy crisis, to revive that deeply flawed agreement.
If the Biden administration can find a way around the Russian demand for an Iranian exception to the Ukraine sanctions, it appears to be more determined than ever to go forward with the flawed Vienna deal, despite its many shortcomings.
CONGRESS IS THE LAST LINE OF DEFENSE
All this means that it will be up to Congress, as the last line of defense, to prevent the deal from going through. Some Biden administration officials, however, claim a congressional review is not necessary, because the deal merely restores the original JCPOA deal, approved by Congress under the flawed terms of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which was cynically designed by the Democrats to make it almost impossible for opponents to block it.
But the revised deal negotiated in Vienna cannot be judged by the same standards used to justify the original JCPOA. Seven years later, even many Democrat Biden supporters now quietly acknowledge that Obama’s hope that Iran’s conduct would be improved by the 2015 deal were naive, and that Obama administration had deliberately concealed from them that deal’s more unsavory side deals.
Today, it is clear that the threat of the autocratic Iranian regime to regional peace and Israel’s survival is greater than ever, and that it has closely allied itself with the world’s other most notorious rogue states, including China and Russia.
That leaves it up to members of Congress to now demand the truth from the Biden administration about everything that’s in the Vienna deal. Our elected senators and congressmen have the moral obligation to meet the test they failed the first time, and demonstrate that they have taken the question asked in Netanyahu’s video to heart: After seven more years of Iranian evildoing and deceit, have we learned nothing?