Since early March, Washington’s nuclear talks with Iran have been floundering like a fish out of water. There have been no negotiations in Vienna since that time. U.S. and Iranian officials have spent the last two months sending messages to one another through the media — and the messages can be summarized as, “Get off your butt and sign the deal.”
Washington insists the ball is in Iran’s court, while Iran insists the entire yearlong negotiation would be over and done with already if the Biden administration showed the necessary political will. The parties seem to be spending as much time laying the groundwork for blaming the other side once the negotiations fall apart as they are in pushing those negotiations across the finish line.
The only one hustling is Enrique Mora, the European Union’s coordinator for the nuclear talks, who arrived in Europe after a multiday trip to Tehran, where he spoke with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. While those talks were described by one official as “difficult,” Mora’s boss, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, was more optimistic. "Let's say the negotiations were blocked, and they have been deblocked,” Borrell told reporters at a G-7 foreign ministers meeting.
Perhaps Borrell has some inside information. For those on the outside looking in, it certainly doesn’t appear as if the diplomacy is moving. Ironically, the issue holding up the nuclear talks has nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program. The United States and Iran have been in a staring contest over the status of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tehran wants the Guard delisted from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, arguing that the only reason it was placed on the list in the first place was that the Trump administration was trying to pressure the Iranian government into signing a more comprehensive agreement on U.S. terms.
The Biden administration has flatly rejected this argument, claiming that Iran is seeking to milk the U.S. for further concessions at the last minute. The State Department says that the Guard matter is outside the confines of the nuclear issue. If Tehran wants concessions on the Guard, it must be willing to offer non-nuclear concessions in return. "The only way I could see it being lifted is if Iran takes steps necessary to justify the lifting of that designation,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Senate appearance last month. “It knows what it would have to do.”
The Biden administration finds itself in a strange predicament. On the one hand, it’s convinced that reentering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is the most effective way to, as State Department spokesman Ned Price described it, put Iran’s nuclear program “back in a box.” While the deal was by no means perfect, it’s hard to see other alternatives doing a better job.
The Biden administration could presumably bet on a Plan B option, such as strengthening former President Donald Trump's maximum pressure campaign. But, there is no evidence suggesting that Iran would be any more interested in surrendering to U.S. demands than it was when U.S. sanctions were cratering Iranian oil exports by nearly 85%. Since the strategy was put into effect, Iran’s total stockpile of enriched uranium has increased from a cap of 202.8 kilograms to more than 2,880 kilograms (not to mention the 60% enrichment Iranian scientists are now churning). If anything, returning to maximum pressure would be returning to failure.
The decision, of course, is in President Joe Biden’s hands. What is more important for U.S. national security interests: Keeping the Guard on the FTO list and risking a rupture in negotiations, which would lead to an even more unrestrained Iranian nuclear program, or removing the Guard from the list (but keeping the organization on other sanctions lists maintained throughout the U.S. government) and dealing with the political fallout on Capitol Hill, but reimposing caps on Iran’s nuclear activity and getting international monitors back into Iran’s facilities? Surely, enduring a few weeks of griping at home is worth preventing another conflict in the Middle East.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.