Trump’s shadow hangs over end of Iran nuclear talks

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WASHINGTON — Many factors are to blame for the dying prospects for reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But perhaps nothing has hampered the Biden administration’s efforts more than the legacy of President Donald J. Trump.

It was Mr. Trump, of course, who in 2018 withdrew from the nuclear pact brokered with Iran by the Obama administration, calling it “the worst deal ever.”

But Mr. Trump did more than pull the plug. US officials and analysts say his actions have significantly complicated America’s ability to negotiate with Tehran, which has made demands outside of the nuclear deal that President Biden has refused to honor without receiving concessions.

The original pact limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions that have crushed the country’s economy. After Mr. Trump walked away from the deal and reimposed the sanctions, Iran also began violating its terms.

With no compromise on a new deal in sight and Iran making steady progress toward nuclear capability, the Biden administration may soon be forced to decide between accepting that Iran has the bomb-making capability or taking military measures to prevent it from doing so. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as producing medical isotopes to diagnose and treat disease.

Mr. Trump handed Mr. Biden an unnecessary nuclear crisis, Robert Malley, the State Department’s chief negotiator, told senators during a hearing late last month, adding that the chances of saving the agreement had become “weak”.

Negotiations in Vienna to restore the agreement have been suspended since mid-March. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Iranian leaders “must decide, and decide very quickly, whether they wish to proceed with what has been negotiated and which could be completed quickly if Iran chooses to do so.” “.

This month, after the United States and its European allies criticized Iran for failing to cooperate with international inspectors, officials in Tehran stepped up efforts by disabling and removing some surveillance cameras in its nuclear facilities.

“Iran has never run away from the negotiating table and believes that negotiations and diplomacy are the best way to reach a good and lasting agreement,” he said in Tehran.

A senior administration official in Washington familiar with the negotiations said he was not aware of any new proposals from Tehran but “of course we remain open” to ideas that could lead to a deal.

Mr. Trump’s legacy haunts the talks in at least three notable ways, according to several people familiar with the negotiation process, which Mr. Biden began early last year.

First, there was what the Iranians call a huge breach of trust: Mr. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal, despite Iran’s adherence to its terms, confirmed Tehran’s fears about the speed with which the United States could change course after an election.

At the negotiating table in Vienna, the Iranians demanded assurances that any successor to Mr Biden would be forced to renege on the deal.

At the end of February, 250 of the 290 Iranian parliamentarians signed a letter to the Iranian president urging him to “learn a lesson from past experiences” by “not engaging in any agreement without first obtaining the necessary guarantees”.

Biden officials explained that was not possible, given the nature of the US democratic system. (Nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran began under President George W. Bush and were finalized in the 2015 deal as part of a presidential pledge by Mr. Obama. The deal did not not been ratified as a treaty by the US Senate.)

Iranians have a related concern: Foreign companies may be reluctant to invest in Iran if they think the US sanctions hammer may fall after the next presidential election.

Mr. Trump has created a second major obstacle to restoring the deal by racking up about 1,500 new sanctions designations against Iran. Iran has insisted that those sanctions be reversed — neither has Mr. Trump’s 2019 designation of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. Previous administrations have condemned the Revolutionary Guards, which monitor Iranian military proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen and have aided insurgents in Iraq who have killed Americans. But they were hesitant to identify any branch of a foreign government as a terrorist group.

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Iranian negotiators have said that to secure a renewed nuclear deal, Mr Biden must drop the Revolutionary Guards terrorist tag. But Mr Biden refused without Iran making any further concessions first – and Mr Blinken described the group as a terrorist organization as recently as April.

Some analysts call the issue largely symbolic, but powerfully. The United States had already heavily sanctioned the Revolutionary Guards and commanders of the group, and the impact of the sanctions is expected to have long-term consequences for Iran’s economy. Still, the US Senate approved a nonbinding resolution by a 62-33 vote in May barring Mr Biden from withdrawing the designation. Some key Democrats backed the measure, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Majority Leader. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel wrote a message of approval on Twitter after Mr. Biden informed him that the designation would stand.

The senior administration official said the United States was open to lifting the terrorist designation, but only if Iran was prepared to offer further assurances regarding security concerns related to the Revolutionary Guards. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private negotiations, would not have been more specific except to say that Iran had refused to cede any ground.

People familiar with the talks point to a third logistical path in which Mr. Trump’s legacy looms: Iranian officials have refused to speak directly to U.S. officials since Mr. Trump’s exit from the deal. (Mr. Trump further infuriated Iran by ordering the assassination of a top Iranian military commander, Qassim Suleimani, in 2020.)

During the talks in Vienna, Mr. Malley communicated with Iranian negotiators by sending messages through European intermediaries from a hotel across the street. This bogged down the process and sometimes created time-consuming misunderstandings.

Trump administration officials and their associates expected such complications, to varying degrees, as they crafted a policy designed, in part, to make future negotiations difficult without dramatic changes in Iran’s behavior. .

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that takes a hard line against the Iranian government, was an outside architect of what he described in 2019 as a sanctions “wall” of the Trump administration against Iran, including the terrorist designation of the Revolutionary Guards.

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“I am happy that the sanctions wall has practically held, because it should hold,” Dubowitz, who has strongly opposed the nuclear deal, said on Monday. “Iran should not get sanctions relief unless it ends the underlying behavior that led to the sanctions in the first place.”

Biden administration officials say Mr. Trump made maximalist demands of Iran that were unrealistic, even given the intense economic pressure Mr. Trump has placed on Tehran.

The Trump administration “predicted that Iran would not restart its nuclear program, and that Iran would come and negotiate on our other concerns,” Malley said during the Senate hearing. “I wish they were right. Unfortunately, they were wrong on all counts.

Iran began ramping up its nuclear program after Mr. Trump pulled out of the deal. But Mr Dubowitz said he accelerated his uranium enrichment to more dangerous levels and took other threatening steps after Mr Biden made it clear he was eager to return to the 2015 deal.

Dennis Ross, a Middle East negotiator who has worked for several presidents, said there was always pressure on both sides to compromise.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei needs sanctions relief for his economy. As for Mr. Biden, Mr. Ross said, “he has no other way at this point to limit Iran’s nuclear program – and he is moving forward right now” with less oversight by the International Security Agency. atomic energy.

Mr Ross acknowledged that a nuclear deal that had limited support in Congress even in 2015 seemed less attractive now, now that Iran has acquired more atomic know-how and the main “clauses sunset” of the agreement are due to expire in a few years. . But he said Mr Biden might still want a return to the deal “not because he thinks it’s so good, but because the alternative is so bad”.

“Otherwise,” he said, “the Iranians can just keep moving forward.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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