US-Iran clash amid progress in nuclear weapons talks

A A US Navy helicopter and patrol vessel prevented an Iranian ship from intercepting a US naval drone in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, marking the latest high-level clash between the two nations as they negotiate a possible return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Biden administration and Iranian officials have exchanged written responses in recent weeks in pursuit of a deal that would lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Diplomats from the US, Europe and Iran are discussing the details of a potential plan in hopes of restoring the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

While a deal may be within reach of American and Iranian diplomats, however, a series of recent military and other confrontations between the two nations threatens progress. In the past month alone, U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias have traded attacks in Syria that have left three U.S. service members wounded and four fighters killed.

Iran-related threats have also recently hit closer to home. On August 10, the FBI charged an Iranian citizen with plot to kill former national security adviser John Bolton. Five days later, writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed in New York by a suspect allegedly motivated by late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 religious edict, or fatwa, to kill the writer.

The administration says the nuclear talks should remain separate from other disputes, but the growing confrontations are complicating President Joe Biden’s efforts not only to strike a deal, but to sell it to the American people. The administration must submit any deal it agrees to with Iran for a 30-day review by Congress. While the current Congress is unlikely to kill the deal, it could loom large in the final days of November’s midterm elections.

If Biden lifts all terrorism-related sanctions, he will be attacked from the right for appearing soft. Critics in Congress, mostly Republicans, have blasted any prospect of lifting billions of dollars in sanctions and striking a lasting deal with a nation that shows no signs of abating what they call “malign activities.”

On Tuesday, the US Navy said in a statement that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attempted to tow an unmanned surface vessel, called the Saildrone Explorer, around 11:00 p.m. local time on Monday in international waters. The USS lightning was in the area and immediately responded, said the fleet, as an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter launched from a nearby base in Bahrain. After arriving at the site, the IRGC severed the tow rope to the drone, which was equipped with sensors, radars and cameras, and about four hours later left the area.

“This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal and unprofessional activities in the Middle East,” said General Michael “Eric” Kurilla, who commands all US forces in the region.

The JCPOA addresses only one of several areas of disagreement between Washington and Tehran, so it’s not surprising that friction continues elsewhere, says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group. “Both Iran and the US have demonstrated that they can walk and chew gum at the same time: negotiating the restoration of the nuclear deal as if there were no regional tensions, and pushing back regionally as if there were no nuclear talks,” he says. “However, there is always a risk that tensions over regional competition will spill over into the nuclear negotiations. If there is one American killed in the region, restoring the JCPOA will become a hundred times more difficult.

Administration officials have publicly insisted that the JCPOA negotiations have not affected US military action. But Middle East observers noted that it took eight days for US forces to respond to the Aug. 15 drone and missile attacks by Iranian proxy groups on two different US installations in Syria. When US warplanes did carry out airstrikes on proxy positions in eastern Syria, the bombing was done to “limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties,” according to to a military declaration.

Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters Aug. 24 at the Pentagon, that the US military initially identified 11 bunkers but only hit nine because it looked from the sky as if there was human activity near two of them. “We delayed hitting them out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “The administration has been quite clear that if Iran returns to complying with the JCPOA, that is in our best interest because it moves Iran away from nuclear weapons capabilities. But whether or not the JCPOA is revived has really nothing to do with our willingness and determination to defend ourselves.

When President Donald Trump cancel the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018, his administration turned the global financial system into a weapon against Tehran. His “maximum pressure campaign” has resulted in more than 1,500 sanctions against the Iranian government and companies and individuals who have done business there, targeting the nation’s central bank, national oil company and other vital sectors of the economy. This caused an outflow of corporations and financial institutions that would rather abandon their investments in Iran than risk the U.S. Sanctions of the Ministry of Finance. Iran’s economy-sustaining oil exports have plunged to historic lows.

By withdrawing from the deal, however, the US has paved the way for Iran to advance further from its nuclear weapons program than it has in the past. Since Trump’s move, Tehran has produced stockpiles of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, closer to the 90 percent purity needed to make nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN watchdog.

To bring Tehran back into line, the Biden administration has shown a willingness to lift some of the economic sanctions — but not all. Either way, there will be significant relief from terrorism sanctions in the deal if it goes through, said Richard Goldberg, who served on the Trump administration’s National Security Council and is now a senior fellow at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. which has long lobbied against the JCPOA. “There will be prior sanctions relief for multiple sectors of Iran’s economy linked to the IRGC,” he said, adding that sanctions would be lifted for the nation’s central bank and oil company, which are among the IRGC’s most important financiers.

There is no dispute among Biden officials that Iran and the IRGC are adversaries intent on expanding their influence in the Middle East, either directly through military force and Iranian-backed political groups such as they have in Iraq and Syria, or by funding and equipping proxies. entities such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The closer they get to a deal, however, the sharper the question for the administration: Just how many attacks is Washington willing to tolerate in order to restore the nuclear deal.

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Write to WJ Hennigan c [email protected].

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