Critics crank up volume as Iran nuclear talks press ahead

The negotiators are negotiating. The naysayers are naysaying. And the Israelis are attacking Iranian ships. Allegedly.

As Tehran and Washington seek a path back to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a growing number of critics are warning against the idea. Some want to outright stop the U.S. from rejoining the deal and lifting numerous sanctions on Iran. Others hope to at least shape the talks in a way that will pressure Iran into a more expansive agreement.

The talks between the U.S. and Iran, being conducted indirectly in Vienna using European intermediaries, were paused Friday as teams from both sides return to their capitals for consultations. The discussions are slated to resume next week, with key issues of what each country must do, and in what order, still unresolved.

For now, the team President Joe Biden has dispatched appears intent on restoring the original deal, and it’s largely ignoring the outside criticism. But the volume of that criticism is likely to rise in the coming days as Tehran and Washington edge closer to an arrangement.

“We cannot go back to the dangerous nuclear plan, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat and a very big threat to the security of the whole world,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most prominent opponents of the nuclear deal, said Tuesday. Israeli opposition to the nuclear deal was one reason former President Donald Trump quit the agreement in 2018.

Netanyahu followed up Wednesday with a pointed warning to the United States: “To our best friends I say — an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction — an agreement like this will not bind us.” It was an indication that Israel intends to keep up its own efforts to undermine Iran on the nuclear front, which have included assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Israel is suspected of being behind a mine explosion that damaged an Iranian ship in the Red Sea on Tuesday, according to media reports. The New York Times, citing an unnamed American official, reported that Israel had told the U.S. that the blast was retaliation for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels. Israel has not publicly confirmed or denied a role in the apparent attack.

The international back-and-forth comes on top of domestic U.S. criticism of a return to the deal, led by Republicans as well as some Democrats.

“The long slide toward surrender begins,” tweeted John Bolton, a former Trump administration national security adviser, alongside a link to a story about the talks.

Several senators have signed on to letters condemning the idea of returning to the agreement, which is often referred to as the JCPOA based on its official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The letters, including one sent this week, urge the Biden administration to keep sanctions on Iran, arguing they provide the U.S. leverage to help shape Iranian behavior. They argue that the 2015 deal had too many provisions that expire and should have covered Iranian actions outside of the nuclear sphere, such as its support for terrorism and proxy militias.

“We oppose any attempt to return to the failed JCPOA, or any deal that offers one-sided concessions to the Iranian regime while it continues to undermine the security of the United States and our allies and partners,” four GOP senators wrote in one missive.

Even some lawmakers who weren’t in Congress when the original deal was unveiled are now voicing their disapproval.

Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, who was elected to Congress in 2018, tweeted: “I have serious reservations about re-starting negotiations with Iran while they continue to enrich uranium at dangerous and unacceptable levels.”

The deal’s supporters say the critics are being intellectually dishonest.

For instance, they note that the point of negotiating a return to the deal is to make Iran end activities like enriching uranium. And when it comes to sanctions, even if the U.S. once again lifts the many that had been lifted by the 2015 deal, there still will be numerous other U.S. sanctions that remain on Tehran.

The Biden administration has, however, said it wants to negotiate a “longer and stronger” deal with Iran, which could address issues beyond the nuclear front, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program. But the administration insists that the first step should be returning to the original nuclear agreement.

The Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the agreement has supporters in Congress, too.

A person familiar with the issue confirmed that Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tim Kaine of Virginia are circulating a letter to obtain signatures from colleagues. The letter “specifically supports a compliance [for] compliance return to the JCPOA and also urgently addressing other regional security issues,” the person said.

The 2015 deal was negotiated under former President Barack Obama’s administration, and it involved several countries as well as assistance from the European Union and the United Nations. It lifted an array of U.S. and international nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.

In 2018, citing many of the complaints critics level at the deal today, Trump walked away from it. He reimposed the sanctions lifted under the agreement as well as tacked on new ones. Over time, Iran, in retaliation, began resuming some of its nuclear activities, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity.

The Biden administration includes many of the people who helped craft the deal during the Obama years. Among them is Rob Malley, now Biden’s special envoy for the Iran talks and the lead U.S. official at the talks in Vienna.

Malley and his team have spent recent months looking at various options for returning to the agreement. That includes sifting through the numerous sanctions imposed and re-imposed on Iran during the Trump years.

While many of the sanctions are clearly aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, the Trump administration categorized others as falling under other headings, such as punishing Iran over its human rights record or its ballistic missile program. The Biden team has to decide which sanctions it believes were legitimately categorized, and should be kept, and which ones were a veiled attempt to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, and should be lifted.

Ali Vaez, a top Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group who has contacts on both the U.S. and Iranian sides, said sticking points in the talks so far include the sequencing and the verification of the sanctions lifting.

Iranian officials have indicated they want the U.S. to lift all the relevant sanctions at once in exchange for them stopping nuclear-related activities that have put Tehran out of compliance with the deal’s specifics. On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted: “All Trump sanctions were anti-JCPOA & must be removed — w/o distinction between arbitrary designations.” That position could further complicate the talks.

Zarif also tweeted that the United States must take the first step by removing sanctions, because it caused the crisis when Trump left the deal. He added that Iran will make its moves after “rapid verification,” an apparent reference to Iran checking to see if the sanctions removal has taken effect.

Thanks to the existence of organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are ways to verify that Iran has stopped its nuclear activities. But Iranian officials haven’t laid out what would suffice for them when it comes to verifying the sanctions lifting. Depending on what exactly the Iranians mean, that could get tough, especially if Tehran is seeking proof that lifting the sanctions is having an effect on its economy.

“When it gets to the money being in their bank accounts, I understand how you verify that,” Vaez said. “But what if a South Korean company that has already gone through the very expensive process of switching to another kind of oil doesn’t want to switch back to Iranian oil? Is that the U.S.’s fault? Would this be a sign of bad faith? It’s difficult to answer.”

Who takes which steps first also is a tricky issue, but not impossible to figure out, Vaez and others said. It could come down to how the moves are described.

It may have to be “designed creatively so that it’s a step-by-step process so that it looks like one step,” Vaez said. “It sounds like they’ll try to define it like one step with different sections.”

,

The negotiators are negotiating. The naysayers are naysaying. And the Israelis are attacking Iranian ships. Allegedly.

As Tehran and Washington seek a path back to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a growing number of critics are warning against the idea. Some want to outright stop the U.S. from rejoining the deal and lifting numerous sanctions on Iran. Others hope to at least shape the talks in a way that will pressure Iran into a more expansive agreement.

The talks between the U.S. and Iran, being conducted indirectly in Vienna using European intermediaries, were paused Friday as teams from both sides return to their capitals for consultations. The discussions are slated to resume next week, with key issues of what each country must do, and in what order, still unresolved.

For now, the team President Joe Biden has dispatched appears intent on restoring the original deal, and it’s largely ignoring the outside criticism. But the volume of that criticism is likely to rise in the coming days as Tehran and Washington edge closer to an arrangement.

“We cannot go back to the dangerous nuclear plan, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat and a very big threat to the security of the whole world,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most prominent opponents of the nuclear deal, said Tuesday. Israeli opposition to the nuclear deal was one reason former President Donald Trump quit the agreement in 2018.

Netanyahu followed up Wednesday with a pointed warning to the United States: “To our best friends I say — an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction — an agreement like this will not bind us.” It was an indication that Israel intends to keep up its own efforts to undermine Iran on the nuclear front, which have included assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Israel is suspected of being behind a mine explosion that damaged an Iranian ship in the Red Sea on Tuesday, according to media reports. The New York Times, citing an unnamed American official, reported that Israel had told the U.S. that the blast was retaliation for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels. Israel has not publicly confirmed or denied a role in the apparent attack.

The international back-and-forth comes on top of domestic U.S. criticism of a return to the deal, led by Republicans as well as some Democrats.

“The long slide toward surrender begins,” tweeted John Bolton, a former Trump administration national security adviser, alongside a link to a story about the talks.

Several senators have signed on to letters condemning the idea of returning to the agreement, which is often referred to as the JCPOA based on its official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The letters, including one sent this week, urge the Biden administration to keep sanctions on Iran, arguing they provide the U.S. leverage to help shape Iranian behavior. They argue that the 2015 deal had too many provisions that expire and should have covered Iranian actions outside of the nuclear sphere, such as its support for terrorism and proxy militias.

“We oppose any attempt to return to the failed JCPOA, or any deal that offers one-sided concessions to the Iranian regime while it continues to undermine the security of the United States and our allies and partners,” four GOP senators wrote in one missive.

Even some lawmakers who weren’t in Congress when the original deal was unveiled are now voicing their disapproval.

Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, who was elected to Congress in 2018, tweeted: “I have serious reservations about re-starting negotiations with Iran while they continue to enrich uranium at dangerous and unacceptable levels.”

The deal’s supporters say the critics are being intellectually dishonest.

For instance, they note that the point of negotiating a return to the deal is to make Iran end activities like enriching uranium. And when it comes to sanctions, even if the U.S. once again lifts the many that had been lifted by the 2015 deal, there still will be numerous other U.S. sanctions that remain on Tehran.

The Biden administration has, however, said it wants to negotiate a “longer and stronger” deal with Iran, which could address issues beyond the nuclear front, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program. But the administration insists that the first step should be returning to the original nuclear agreement.

The Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the agreement has supporters in Congress, too.

A person familiar with the issue confirmed that Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tim Kaine of Virginia are circulating a letter to obtain signatures from colleagues. The letter “specifically supports a compliance [for] compliance return to the JCPOA and also urgently addressing other regional security issues,” the person said.

The 2015 deal was negotiated under former President Barack Obama’s administration, and it involved several countries as well as assistance from the European Union and the United Nations. It lifted an array of U.S. and international nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.

In 2018, citing many of the complaints critics level at the deal today, Trump walked away from it. He reimposed the sanctions lifted under the agreement as well as tacked on new ones. Over time, Iran, in retaliation, began resuming some of its nuclear activities, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity.

The Biden administration includes many of the people who helped craft the deal during the Obama years. Among them is Rob Malley, now Biden’s special envoy for the Iran talks and the lead U.S. official at the talks in Vienna.

Malley and his team have spent recent months looking at various options for returning to the agreement. That includes sifting through the numerous sanctions imposed and re-imposed on Iran during the Trump years.

While many of the sanctions are clearly aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, the Trump administration categorized others as falling under other headings, such as punishing Iran over its human rights record or its ballistic missile program. The Biden team has to decide which sanctions it believes were legitimately categorized, and should be kept, and which ones were a veiled attempt to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, and should be lifted.

Ali Vaez, a top Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group who has contacts on both the U.S. and Iranian sides, said sticking points in the talks so far include the sequencing and the verification of the sanctions lifting.

Iranian officials have indicated they want the U.S. to lift all the relevant sanctions at once in exchange for them stopping nuclear-related activities that have put Tehran out of compliance with the deal’s specifics. On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted: “All Trump sanctions were anti-JCPOA & must be removed — w/o distinction between arbitrary designations.” That position could further complicate the talks.

Zarif also tweeted that the United States must take the first step by removing sanctions, because it caused the crisis when Trump left the deal. He added that Iran will make its moves after “rapid verification,” an apparent reference to Iran checking to see if the sanctions removal has taken effect.

Thanks to the existence of organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are ways to verify that Iran has stopped its nuclear activities. But Iranian officials haven’t laid out what would suffice for them when it comes to verifying the sanctions lifting. Depending on what exactly the Iranians mean, that could get tough, especially if Tehran is seeking proof that lifting the sanctions is having an effect on its economy.

“When it gets to the money being in their bank accounts, I understand how you verify that,” Vaez said. “But what if a South Korean company that has already gone through the very expensive process of switching to another kind of oil doesn’t want to switch back to Iranian oil? Is that the U.S.’s fault? Would this be a sign of bad faith? It’s difficult to answer.”

Who takes which steps first also is a tricky issue, but not impossible to figure out, Vaez and others said. It could come down to how the moves are described.

It may have to be “designed creatively so that it’s a step-by-step process so that it looks like one step,” Vaez said. “It sounds like they’ll try to define it like one step with different sections.”

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