Politics

Biden keeps pushing for Iran deal revival despite dire warnings

Iran will push ahead with clandestine nuclear enrichment and rogue missile testing, and expand its support for militant allies and terror groups if the Biden administration gets its way and revives the now tattered 2015 nuclear deal, a top Saudi Arabian security expert warned on Wednesday.

The assertions from Mohammed S. Alsulami, the Riyadh-based founder of the International Institute for Iranian Studies, came after Tehran unveiled a new long-range missile in a show of defiance to the international community a day after multilateral talks on the nuclear deal resumed in Vienna.

The Biden administration’s attempt to rejoin the accord that former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018 has been quietly grinding ahead while world attention is focused elsewhere, on the clash with Russia over Ukraine and the challenge China poses to U.S. and allied interests in Asia.

Despite criticism from Republicans, and a handful of key Democrats in Washington, the administration has been redoubling its efforts to entice Tehran back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal that once saw the U.S., the European Union, Russia and China ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program. Mr. Trump reimposed and expanded sanctions on Tehran when he took the U.S. out three years later.

The administration‘s latest move was to restore some of the sanctions relief for Iran’s nuclear program on Friday in an attempt to sweeten the pot for Tehran ahead of talks that resumed Tuesday in Vienna, where Iranian officials have held such a defiant posture over the past year that they deal with U.S. negotiators only through European diplomats serving as intermediaries.

The limited sanctions relief came in the form of waivers that will exempt some foreign countries and companies from U.S. penalties should those countries and companies choose to work in Iran’s civilian nuclear sector.

Iran’s foreign minister welcomed the sanctions relief on Saturday but called it insufficient. Tehran argues it needs more binding pledges to prevent a future president from doing what Mr. Trump did and refusing to honor the deal.

While this week’s talks in Vienna have been described as a make-or-break moment for the JCPOA, critics are warning that the Biden administration is traveling down a slippery slope toward a new Middle East security crisis by emboldening Iran‘s hardline regime.

That was a central message that Mr. Alsulami brought Wednesday to an online discussion hosted by the Washington-based National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. He warned that Tehran is poised to expand its support for militant allies — including powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, which is situated between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia — the same way that it did with cash earned from sanctions relief in the early days when the JCPOA was in force.

“If we sign the same deal or rejoin or revive the same deal, Iran will practice the same activities, but it will increase their involvement and export the revolution [with] more militias,” Mr. Alsulami said. “Now we have more than 60 militias in Iraq, so maybe in two years’ time, if there is a deal, we’ll see more than 100 militias, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other places.”

“Iranian weapons will go to other places and we will see more attacks,” he said. “We will have to protect ourselves and … have to put all the options on the table, and this is very dangerous for both sides.”

He added that while the Biden administration holds out hope that a renewed JCPOA will prolong the time it takes for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, there is no question that “Iran will cheat, as it has cheated during the deal of 2015.” U.N. inspectors say Tehran largely adhered to the deal but has repeatedly gone past its limits after the Trump administration repudiated the pact.

“It will do the same thing,” Mr. Alsulami said. “Iran will cheat and will have more secret places to enrich uranium, to do whatever they want to do.”

Republican frustration

His sobering assessment aligns with concerns being aired in Washington, mainly by Republican lawmakers frustrated with the Biden administration’s push to revive a deal that failed to achieve support from a congressional majority when it was reached seven years ago by the Obama administration when Mr. Biden was vice president.

Twenty-seven GOP senators signed a letter drafted this week by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, demanding that Mr. Biden give them say over America’s reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, or they will try to block the move, according to Politico, which was first to obtain a copy of the letter.

Some key Democrats also have expressed concern.

“At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?” Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an opponent of the original deal, said in a recent speech on the Senate floor, during which he sought to draw attention to “Iran’s dangerously and rapidly escalating nuclear program.”

“I remain highly skeptical [Iran] will suspend any of its other threatening and destabilizing activities, from ballistic missile development to support for terrorist proxies,” Mr. Menendez said.

Such concerns seemed only to be underscored by Tehran’s unveiling of a new long-range missile that Iranian state television said was developed under the guidance of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The new Kheybar Shekan missile is propelled by solid fuel and has an estimated range of about 870 miles with “pinpoint accuracy,” state media reports said.

Critics of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated have long complained that the deal failed to do anything to contain Iran’s advancement of a ballistic missile program that had previously been curtailed by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Benham Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of the 2015 deal, said Wednesday’s developments underscored how Iran is continuing to advance its ballistic missile inventory.

“The Kheybar Shekan appears to be an upgrade of the Fateh class of solid-propellant systems, both in reported range and accuracy,” Mr. Ben Taleblu said in comments circulated to reporters. “Iran’s continued investment in solid-propellant systems is proof that the bar for the use of these weapons is dropping.”

Provocations

Other analysts have pointed to different concerns with regard to Iran’s ongoing pursuit of missiles and engagement in provocations.

Norman Roule, a retired CIA official who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the spy agency, pointed Wednesday to an increasingly brazen wave of recent attacks on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by Iran-backed Houthi militants from Yemen.

The attacks have featured drone and missile strikes on Abu Dhabi as part of an apparent campaign by the Houthis to exact revenge on the UAE for its role in a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war.

Mr. Roule, who also spoke at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations event, said the Houthi attacks show how Iran is now “allowing its proxies to use Iranian weapons of mass destruction to attack routinely multiple mass-casualty civilian targets. That could produce a 9/11 style event.”

He added that Tehran’s ongoing provocations risk triggering efforts by other Middle East powers to “significantly increase their [own] missile programs to develop a deterrence against Iran.”

While Mr. Roule, currently a non-resident fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University, broadly described Iran as a “weak power” with an economy “about the size of that of Maryland,” he stressed Iran’s influence over strategic Persian Gulf shipping passages, including the Strait of Hormuz, give it a “capacity to influence global trade and energy markets.”

He also stressed that U.S. policy toward Iran has been sharply divisive on the domestic political front — a factor that may have hobbled Washington‘s ability to craft an effective strategy dealing with the Islamic republic. “We have a dynamic in which two administrations, albeit from the same party, have found it easier to come to a deal with Iran, one of our most aggressive and lethal adversaries, than with the opposing political party, on Iran policy,” Mr. Roule said.

The Biden administration has quietly plodded ahead in hopes of reviving the JCPOA, with negotiators from Iran and the remaining parties to the agreement — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — gathering in Vienna this week.

Officials say that the talks are reaching their final stage, though it’s not clear how long that might take. The negotiations have dragged on for months, punctuated by a long gap last year caused by the arrival of a hard-line new government in Iran. The current eighth round started just after Christmas.

Iran says it has bolstered its economy and trade to get around U.S. sanctions, and has moved closer to Russia and China — both signatories to the 2015 JCPOA deal — as the talks have progressed, giving it allies at the table in the Vienna talks in pressuring Washington to compromise.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press briefing Tuesday in Beijing that the talks are “currently at a crucial juncture” and that all involved “should enhance the sense of urgency.”

“As the culprit in the Iranian nuclear crisis, the U.S. should thoroughly correct its wrong policy of maximum pressure on Iran and lift all illegal sanctions on Iran and third parties,” Mr. Zhao said. “On this basis, the Iranian side should resume full compliance.”

• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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