The U.S. Still Looks for a Nuclear ‘Understanding’ with Iran

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei makes a speech on February 17, 2021 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The suspension of a top envoy and increasing congressional backlash are threatening to derail the Biden administration’s months-long secret talks with Iran. The administration hopes to prevent the Islamic Republic from enriching uranium to the 90 percent threshold generally considered weapons grade. But critics worry if it’ll even work, and if it does, at what cost.

After missing congressional briefings and overseas trips for weeks, Special Envoy Rob Malley was suspended without pay by the State Department, according to Iran International. The news comes amid an ongoing investigation into Malley’s potential mishandling of classified documents. His security clearance had also reportedly been revoked some time in the two months ahead of his leave, preventing him from accessing sensitive national security material while on the job.

Malley led the Biden administration’s early efforts to revive the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, after former President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the agreement. Indirect talks to revive the agreement collapsed last year. 

For weeks, the State Department had said Malley’s absence was due to the illness of a close family member. Now, lawmakers are accusing the administration of knowingly misleading Congress and journalists about the special envoy’s whereabouts, and demanding greater input on Iran policy.

The news about Malley’s leave “follows the troubling recent revelation that the Biden Administration held indirect ‘proximity talks’ with the Iranian regime in May 2023, underscoring the importance of congressional oversight on Iran negotiations and policy, and for transparency and accountability on the part of the Department and the rest of the Biden Administration,” Rep. Michael McCaul, GOP chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

“At no point did the Department indicate that Special Envoy Malley’s security clearance was suspended or under review, or that he was being investigated for potential misconduct,” he added.

Asked about Malley’s suspension, the State Department said the special envoy’s post had been taken over by his deputy, Abram Paley. But it appears that a new figure has emerged to lead the administration’s Iran policy in recent weeks: National Security Council official Brett McGurk. He has led indirect talks in Oman with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, to secure portions of the defunct deal that Malley failed to restore in full during negotiations in 2021 and 2022.

Iran itself is a serial violator of the JCPOA, conducting weapons sales, ballistic missile tests, and continuing enrichment. An inspection this year by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ atomic watchdog, detected “particles” of uranium enriched up to 83.7 percent—well beyond the levels needed for a nuclear energy program and in contravention of the deal’s 3.67 percent cap. It also reported Iran had amassed 192 pounds of uranium enriched to 60 percent—which, spun to 90 percent, would be just enough for a single nuclear weapon. Now Iran appears to be building an underground nuclear site so deep that military analysts fear it may be impenetrable even by U.S.-made “bunker buster” bombs. 

Thus U.S. officials are pushing Tehran to reinstate some constraints on its fast-advancing nuclear program and release one or more of the American citizens currently behind bars in Iran. In exchange, the U.S. reportedly plans to release Iranian assets frozen abroad—a process that is reportedly already underway.

The U.S. last month approved the transfer of at least $2.76 billion in unpaid energy debts from Iraq to Iran. But that may have just been the start. Head of the Iranian-Iraqi Chamber of Commerce in Tehran told Iranian media on Monday that a total of $10 billion—the total sum Iraq owed for natural gas and electricity purchases—had been sent to the Islamic Republic. American and South Korean officials are reportedly considering ways to release an additional $7 billion in Iranian funds, which were frozen in Seoul by Trump-era sanctions. 

Meanwhile the administration is turning a blind eye to international purchases of embargoed Iranian oil exports, which last month reached their highest level since the U.S. reimplemented sanctions in 2018. Iran’s oil minister on Thursday said the country had signed $40 billion in oil contracts in the last 20 months, despite U.S. sanctions. The minister further claimed that Iran was producing more than 3 billion barrels of crude oil per day, up from its record high in June. The sales give the Iranian government badly needed capital as its economy continues to reel from sky-high inflation and a plummeting currency. 

Cash payouts and a greenlight for resumed trade in exchange for nuclear restraints may resemble the 2015 nuclear deal, but you won’t hear the Biden administration say so. U.S. officials have repeatedly denied reports that Washington is trying to enter an “interim” agreement with Tehran, instead portraying ongoing talks as an effort to reach an “understanding” with the Islamic Republic in the name of de-escalation. 

But analysts and lawmakers suspect the framing is a way to avoid congressional oversight. 

The 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act stipulates that any new nuclear agreement with Tehran be given a review period by Congress before sanctions are lifted. McCaul reminded the president of the bipartisan legislation in a letter to the White House last month, writing that “any arrangement or understanding with Iran, even informal, requires submission to Congress.”

“I think the administration believes that so long as they don’t acknowledge there’s any deal, they don’t put together any documents that would resemble a deal, and they simply keep it at ‘U.S. measures being taken and reciprocal measures being taken by the Iranians,’ that they have evaded U.S. law and provided Iran cash relief for a short-term solution to 90 percent enriched uranium production,” Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official and senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells The Dispatch. The administration’s opaqueness marks a “legal maneuver” to get around the congressional review, he says.

The rumored talks reportedly also include the request that Iran cease its plots to kill U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, as well as an effort to prevent Tehran from selling ballistic missiles to Russia. Yet not included are constraints on the Islamic Republic’s ongoing drone sales to Russia for its war effort in Ukraine. Iran is currently helping Moscow construct a factory of its own to produce attack drones.

While the U.S. considers carrots to restrain Iran, Israel is looking to sticks. “The only thing that has ever stopped rogue nations from developing nuclear weapons is a credible military threat or a credible military action,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in February

To that end, Washington’s ongoing talks with Tehran are both beneficial and harmful. On one hand, they buy Israel time to prepare. On the other, they seem to be removing some of the pressure on the Iranian regime.

The Iranians “continue to perfect all their capabilities to produce nuclear weapons, they continue to construct a site capable of weaponizing without being susceptible to military action, and they get to use all the money for nefarious purposes,” says Goldberg. “This isn’t an ongoing negotiation. This is a deal that’s underway.”

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