Biden envoy argues for Iran nuclear deal as outlook fades

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Saying “not particularly optimistic, to say the least,” about the success of year-long negotiations on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, the Biden administration’s envoy to the talks insisted on Wednesday that pursuing diplomacy remains the best option for US national security. .

“The military option cannot solve this problem” and prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Robert Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There is no military response…we have heard this repeatedly,” including from Israel, he said. “The only option here is diplomacy.”

The hearing was the first extended public presentation by the administration since stalled talks suspended in March. While several Democrats urged the administration to continue negotiations, several others joined most Republicans in questioning the value of continuing the talks.

The administration said in February that if an agreement had not been reached “in the coming weeks”, Iran’s nuclear advances would “make impossible” a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the Barack Obama-era deal. is known.

“It’s the end of May,” noted committee chairman Robert Menendez (DN.J.). “If Iran were to break out tomorrow,” with enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb, “what is the United States prepared to do?” He asked. “We want to hear US plans to enforce the sanctions already in place…detailed plans on what the administration is prepared to do to stop the growing oil trade between Iran and China…to bring detained Americans home wrongly in Iran.

The United States “must support President Biden’s statement that ‘Iran will never get a nuclear weapon under my leadership,'” Menendez said.

Iran nuclear talks deadlock on terrorism issue

Malley acknowledged that in addition to expanding its nuclear program, Iran has stepped up its other destabilizing activities in the region, including support for proxy militias, development of its ballistic missile program and attacks on US forces. and others in the Middle East. But, he said, “it’s much safer to negotiate ‘these issues’ when we know the nuclear program is under control.”

Since April last year, the United States negotiated indirectly with Iran through the three European parties – Britain, Germany and France – the initial agreement, which severely limited the ability Iran to produce and store the enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for lifting US “nuclear-related” sanctions against it. Signatories, Russia and China also participated in the negotiations, held in Vienna, to return to the agreement from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018.

After the withdrawal, Trump embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, reimposing sanctions that had been lifted and adding about 1,600 more, while Iran increased the quantity and quality of its production of enriched uranium well beyond the limits of the JCPOA.

Under the terms of a new deal, Iran would return to 2015 restrictions on the size and scope of its nuclear program, and the United States would lift ‘nuclear-related’ sanctions against it, while other sanctions would remain in place.

But talks were suspended in March, according to US and European officials, when Iran demanded that the US also lift its 2019 designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military, as a foreign terrorist organization.

The Biden administration has not announced a decision in response to the Iranian request. But Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in a series of statements on Twitter Tuesday, said Biden had confirmed to him in a phone call late last month that he would “keep…the IRGC” on the list, “ which is its place. ”

In a tweet, Bennett thanked Biden “for this principled decision and for being a true friend of Israel.”

Since the suspension of the talks, the negotiators of the European Union, who coordinate the negotiations, have gone back and forth between Tehran and Washington in an attempt to break the impasse. EU chief negotiator Enrique Mora and Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani both issued mildly positive statements after visits to the Iranian capital this month.

In a lengthy prepared statement, Malley acknowledged there were “strongly opposing views” in Congress on the deal. Last month, a bipartisan Senate supermajority passed a nonbinding resolution insisting there would be no delisting of the IRGC and that any nuclear deal would also address Iranian support for terrorism in the region.

Repeating familiar talking points from the administration, Malley said the negotiations were still limited to Iran’s nuclear program, hoping that a deal would lead to further discussions on Iran’s other activities, including the terrorism, support for proxy forces in the region and the development of ballistic missiles. .

“To the extent that there is disagreement in this room,” he told lawmakers, “it comes down to this: is it better to relaunch the nuclear deal and, at the same time, use all the other tools at our disposal – diplomatic, economic and otherwise – to deal with Iran’s destabilizing policies? Or is it better to get rid of the agreement and rely on a policy of pressure alone to make Iran accept heavier nuclear constraints and curb its “aggressive practices”.

“We have gone through several years of actual experience in the very policy approach that critics of the JCPOA were advocating: a so-called policy of maximum pressure, designed to strangle the Iranian regime’s revenue, in the hope of bringing the ‘Iran to accept far greater nuclear restrictions and adopt far less aggressive behavior,’ Malley said.

“Many of us strongly disagreed with this policy at the time, but of course we could not prove that it would fail. That was then. This is now. Then we predicted, now we know .

Gulf Arab states that opposed Iran nuclear deal are now courting Tehran

In response to questions, he reiterated the administration’s commitment to submit any new agreement for congressional review, while denying calls to make it a treaty that would be subject to Senate approval.

Malley’s testimony was followed by that of Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, one of the main critics of the American re-entry into the nuclear agreement. In his prepared remarks, Dubowitz said sunset clauses were reinstated in the original agreement – ​​to be retained in a new agreement Deal – would lift many of the nuclear restrictions it places on Iran within a few years, and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions would provide Iran with $275 billion in sanctions relief in the first year and 800 billion dollars in five years.

Malley called these figures “grossly exaggerated compared to what our intelligence thinks”. He said removing current sanctions on Iranian oil exports would earn Iran “about $5 billion a month at current prices.” China is currently the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, in violation of US sanctions.

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