The Clock Keeps Ticking on a New Iran Nuclear Deal

For months, undercover Turkish agents watched quietly as Iranian spies stalked 75-year-old Yair Geller. From the Israeli-Turkish business owner’s Istanbul home to his workplace, the foreign operatives tracked his location and photographed his movements. When local officials gathered enough intelligence to confirm the group’s intent—to assassinate Geller in response to the killing of Iranian nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh two years prior—they intervened and arrested eight of the nine planners. 

It wasn’t the first and likely won’t be the last of Iran’s assassination plots on Turkey’s soil.

Armed with the knowledge of the Iran’s covert global reach, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent the White House a clear message last Wednesday: We don’t negotiate with terrorists. 

With the support of 16 Senate Democrats—including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—the upper chamber passed a Republican-led motion to bar the Biden administration from removing the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The militia’s delisting has become a key sticking point for Iranian negotiators in stalled talks to revive portions of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, putting the Biden team in a precarious political position as the regime continues to target Americans at home and abroad. 

Still, European intermediaries remain determined to bridge the gap between the two parties. Ahead of his planned visit to Tehran this week, Enrique Mora—the European Union coordinator of the indirect talks—proposed that the U.S. partially lift the IRGC’s FTO designation in a final effort to carve out a “middle way.” According to recent reports, a compromise scenario could involve the removal of the designation on some units of the IRGC but not others. 

The Biden administration has yet to write off such a step in its recent public statements, despite congressional pressure and previous assurances that sanctions relief under a new deal would exclude penalties on transgressions like human rights abuses and international terrorism. 

The designation is reportedly the biggest remaining obstacle in finalizing a draft agreement, but both parties have other incentives to stall. The more highly enriched uranium Iran can produce away from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s watchful eye, the more leverage it has in ongoing negotiations. And by dragging on talks, the Biden administration avoids both the confrontation with Iran that would come from outright abandoning the deal and the domestic political fallout that would come from making the concessions necessary to secure it. 

But the U.S. won’t be able to kick the can down the road for much longer. Renewed attention to the IRGC’s operations abroad has led to a push in Washington for an Iran policy that addresses a broader spectrum of the regime’s crimes. And the value of a partially restored 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) dwindles with each passing day, as many of the deal’s key provisions near their expiration dates and Iran builds up its atomic arsenal. 

Late last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki warned that Iran’s breakout time—the time needed to amass enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb—was down to “just a few weeks or less.” And even with a partially restored JCPOA agreement, Israeli officials assessed in February, Iran would still be just four to six months away from breakout. The deal in its current form would reportedly preserve much of Iran’s existing atomic arsenal—both its advanced centrifuges and excess enriched uranium—allowing it to quickly restore its nuclear program if the U.S. moves to reinstate sanctions.

The international community must now decide whether an increasingly toothless deal is worth extending the regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief and other concessions, and, if not, how to address the Islamic Republic’s creep toward nuclear threshold status. But fractures among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.—complicate both calculations, particularly following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“The proposed deal imposes few significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions beyond 2030 and a coalition of great powers willing to cooperate to constrain Iran’s regional and missile programs doesn’t exist,” Norman Roule, the former U.S. national intelligence manager for Iran, told The Dispatch. “It will take much work to construct a new policy and an effective coalition, a difficult demand at this moment in international affairs.”

Iran’s growing economic ties with China make matters worse for American and European negotiators. In the first three months of 2022, and in violation of devastating Trump-era sanctions still on the books, Iran exported to China an average of 870,000 barrels of oil a day. On Monday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi touted the country’s flourishing oil sales during a televised appearance: “Today, the amount of oil sales in the country has doubled since the beginning of the government, and we no longer have to worry about this.”

And Tehran is using this reprieve from U.S. sanctions enforcement to make requests entirely outside the scope of the original nuclear deal. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian urged American negotiators to be “realistic” by permanently lifting all sanctions as a sign of goodwill, including those consistent with the text of the JCPOA: “Removing sanctions in all areas and receiving economic guarantees are among the most important items on our negotiating team’s agenda.” 

Lifting the IRGC’s terrorist designation is of particular importance to the Iranian side, both because of its symbolic weight–the militia’s association with the slain General Qassem Suleimani—and because of its practical applications. Given the militia’s hold over the Iranian economy and government, the penalties touch multiple sectors and regime officials.

“Not all sanctions are created equally. This is the gold standard of counter-terrorism designations,” Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against a Nuclear Iran, told The Dispatch

“It differs from other counter-terrorism sanctions that we have, like the specially designated global terrorist designation under Executive Order 13224, in that there are immigration-related restrictions simply by virtue of membership in the group,” Brodsky added. “There is a criminal prohibition attached to it for material support to a group that’s listed as a foreign terrorist organization, with extraterritorial reach. It also provides additional avenues for victims of the terrorist organization to pursue damages in civil litigation.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic continues to engage in the sanctionable activities it demands impunity for, taking hostages, sponsoring regional terrorism, and targeting its percieved adversaries in Iran and abroad

In recent testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken implicitly confirmed that former U.S. officials—including his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton—remain under threat of assassination by Iranian operatives on U.S. soil. 

Lifting sanctions on the IRGC would undoubtedly provoke fierce backlash in Congress, particularly among Republicans and Democratic lawmakers in vulnerable seats. Last Friday, a motion stating that terrorism sanctions on the IRGC and Iran’s Central Bank are a crucial check on Iran’s cooperation with China passed in the Senate by a vote of 82-12. 

Although the measure and last Wednesday’s motion to cement the IRGC’s FTO designation are non-binding, their passage signaled that senators of both parties plan to exert pressure on the Biden administration’s Iran policymaking. 

“You have to look at the composition of that group. The Republicans are obviously outraged about even the suggestion of lifting this designation, and very, very powerful members of the Democratic Party are also,” Brodsky said, pointing to support for Wednesday’s motion from Schumer and Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand. “Apart from the FTO issue, there’s a broader message that these senators are sending. They’re not interested in testing the proposition of whether mutual compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal is possible. They’re interested in an Iran policy that moves beyond this nuclear deal, which has paralyzed the international community from holding the regime accountable.”

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