Despite assertions by all parties that the negotiators are “very close” to sealing the deal, the seemingly never-ending nuclear talks with Iran have hit yet another stumbling block.
The main point of contention is Iran’s demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps be taken off the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or FTO. Although such a delisting would have few practical consequences, it has brought to the fore President Biden’s key challenge with a renewed nuclear deal: Is the political cost of securing the deal higher than the cost of letting it die?
To be clear, the delisting is little more than symbolic to both sides. As Esfandyar Batmanghelidj points out, the FTO designation is only one out of many ways that the IRGC is both sanctioned and classified as a terrorist organization. Even if Biden removes the IRGC from the FTO list, it will remain a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, a decision first taken by Washington in 2007. Nor will foreign companies feel comfortable engaging with companies associated with the IRGC. The Iranians will not benefit practically from the delisting, nor will the United States suffer any tangible loss.
Politically, however, both Tehran and Washington have unnecessarily painted themselves into a corner. At the Doha Forum in Qatar last weekend, Iran’s former foreign minister Kamal Kharazi and current adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that the IRGC “certainly must be removed” from the FTO list for nuclear talks to succeed. Walking back such categorical statements will be costly.
Similarly, the issue has given ammunition to JCPOA opponents in the U.S. Senate, where it needs the support of at least 41 Senators in order to ensure that a resolution of disapproval of the agreement fails. (It appears very likely in any case that Congress will review the renewed deal under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015.)
But as opposition to the delisting grows despite its lack of any practical implications, supporters of the agreement in Congress fear that the Biden administration is focusing excessively on the political costs of such a step while underestimating the costs of letting the JCPOA die due to what is essentially a symbolic issue.
Both the Raisi and Biden administrations seem to be committing this mistake. Recent conversations I have held with regional and U.S. players have left me with the strong impression that the risk of escalation toward a military confrontation is greater than many in Washington have assumed — myself included.
Few believe that Tehran will refrain from expanding its nuclear program if the talks fail. The Biden administration has already made clear that, under such a scenario, it will have little choice but to turn up the pressure on Iran. One avenue would be to condemn Iran at the IAEA Board of Governors and refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. At that point, Iranian sources tell me, Tehran will kick out all IAEA inspectors and deny its inspectors access to Iran’s nuclear sites.
At the U.N. Security Council, Russia will likely veto any new resolution against Iran. EU members, however, may then trigger snapback sanctions as provided by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution that endorsed and made the JCPOA binding in 2015. Neither Russia nor China can veto the snapback resolution, thus subjecting Tehran to U.N. Security Council Chapter 7 sanctions once more.
According to Nasser Hadian, a prominent Iranian academic with extensive access to Iranian national security officials, Tehran has already planned for this scenario and will respond by giving notification of its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After the mandatory 3-month notice period, Iran would no longer be bound to any of the restrictions the Treaty imposes on Iran, including a commitment not to build nuclear weapons. At that point, Iran plans to adopt a policy of "creative ambiguity," a play on Israel’s nuclear posture of "strategic ambiguity,” according to Hadian. Without direct access or insight into Iran’s nuclear program, the world will be left guessing whether Iran is building a bomb. And, after a few months, the world will be guessing whether Iran already has built one.
Needless to say, Washington will perceive such a measure by Iran as a major — perhaps unprecedented — provocation and escalation. The United States will likely respond to Iran’s notification to withdraw from the NPT by building a credible military option, which likely will include moving aircraft carrier task forces to the Persian Gulf. Tensions will rise precipitously. A single spark or miscalculation could be enough to start a war.
And contrary to earlier expectations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran has already decided to launch ballistic missiles against these countries within the first 48 hours after the first military blows are exchanged between the United States and Iran, according to Hadian. This has also been communicated to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, he asserts.
Even if the United States avoids the U.N. route, its other options to pressure Iran also carry significant escalation risks. One option at Biden’s disposal would see U.S. warships intercepting and confiscating Iranian oil tankers on the high seas and then selling their cargo in order to strangle Iran’s export income without diminishing global oil supplies. While it is difficult to describe this as anything other than piracy, it is far from inconceivable: the Biden administration has already confiscated one such tanker, sold the oil, and kept the proceeds.
Mindful of Biden’s limited options when it comes to imposing new sanctions, this would be an obvious means of applying new pressure. Tehran currently has 25 million barrels of oil stored on leased tanks. With oil selling at anywhere between $90 and $110 a barrel, that amounts to roughly somewhere between $2.3 and $2.7 billion or nearly half the amount of Iranian funds currently frozen in foreign banks. Exercising such an option would very likely provoke Iran to retaliate. This could include attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, which the Biden administration likely would treat as a declaration of war, even if conducted by Iran-aligned Iraqi militias and not Iran itself.
The Iranians may very well be bluffing. These decisions may not have been taken. And even if they are, they can always be reversed. The inevitability of these scenarios cannot be assumed. What appears clear, however, is that neither Iran nor the United States can increase pressure on the other if the JCPOA collapses without risking dangerous escalation, including military conflict. The main reason there is no such escalation right now is precisely because of the hope that the JCPOA may still be revived.
Consequently, failure to secure the nuclear deal will very likely lead to unpredictable and possibly uncontrollable escalation – and almost certainly skyrocketing oil and gas prices – only months before the midterm elections in November. The political costs — for both the Biden and Raisi administrations — will be immense. The political costs to both the United States and Iran of either delisting the IRGC or dropping the demand to delist, respectively, pale in comparison.
Trita Parsi is the co-founder and Executive Vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Members of the U.S. military and international media survey the damage of Iranian missile attacks at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Jan. 13, 2020. Alaska Air National Guardsmen of 211th Rescue Squadron evacuated many squadron members during the Jan. 8 attack. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Derek Mustard/Released)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.