US reaffirms commitment to pursuit of JCPOA—despite Iran’s kidnapping plot and nuclear stalemate

In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, three versions of Iran’s domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. (Photo: IRIB/AP)
In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, three versions of Iran’s domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. (Photo: IRIB/AP)

WASHINGTON, DC (Kurdistan 24) – On June 18, Iranians elected a new, ultra-conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi. The former head of Iran’s judiciary, Raisi is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and will take office early next month.

Two days later—on June 20—the last of the indirect talks in Vienna between Tehran and Washington were held over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Nearly a month has passed, and no date has been set for renewing the talks. Yet this week, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price repeatedly affirmed an unconditional US commitment to return to the discussions.

Plot to Kidnap Iranian-American Journalist

Journalists were unusually critical of that position, because, at the same time, the Justice Department issued a far-reaching indictment of five individuals for a plot to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist, human rights activist, and regime critic, who lived in New York.

The most senior figure in the indictment, 50-year-old Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani was identified as an Iranian intelligence officer in the indictment issued on Tuesday, 

It is not uncommon for there to be poor coordination between the Justice Department and other agencies of the US government. In an ordinary criminal case, the rights of the defendant, including privacy, are very important. Someone’s name should not be publicly released, until, and unless, they are officially and formally charged.

While that is commendable in routine proceedings, it can have significant—and very negative—implications when foreign governments and national security matters are involved.

Asked at Tuesday’s press briefing about the statement of an Iranian official earlier that day that Tehran was negotiating with the US on the release of US citizens detained in Iran, Price cheerfully confirmed the indirect talks—seemingly oblivious to the indictment that was about to be released in New York. 

Even more disturbing, it seemed that Price, and the State Department as a whole, did not know that Iran was actively plotting to kidnap a US citizen on US soil.

Thus, on Tuesday, a journalist told Price, “There is a report out of Tehran today that a government spokesman said that Iran and the United States are negotiating for prisoners exchanges.” 

“You are correct,” Price replied. He confirmed the report, saying that “indirect, but active discussions [are] taking place” for the release of Americans “who have been unjustly detained, deprived of their freedom for far too long.” 

“We are treating the issue of detainees independently from discussions of the JCPOA,” Price continued. We want to see that the “detainees are released as soon as possible,” and “we’re also working with our allies, many of whom also have citizens currently arbitrarily or wrongfully detained by the Iranian Government.”

If Price, and the State Department more broadly, were aware that Iran was still actively in the business of kidnapping US citizens, perhaps the policy and his answer would have been different.

Nuclear Stalemate

No date has been set for the resumption of the nuclear talks in Vienna, yet for three days in a row—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—Price reiterated the US readiness to return to them.

As Price stated on Wednesday, “The United States is prepared to resume indirect talks with Iran, to resume [the] seventh round of negotiations,” essentially repeating what he had said the day before: Robert Malley, the lead negotiator in the talks that produced the 2015 nuclear deal and now the Special Envoy for Iran, “and his team are prepared to return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks, as soon as they are scheduled.”

Starting in July 2019, a year after the Trump administration left the JCPOA and began to re-impose sanctions, Iran began violating its own JCPOA commitments. To name but two, monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities, supposedly all for civilian purposes, by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has been restricted. In addition, Iran has increased its enrichment of uranium far beyond the 3.57 percent level set in the JCPOA. 

Last week, the IAEA reported that Iran had begun to produce enriched uranium metal, proscribed under the JCPOA, and on Wednesday, Iran’s outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, warned that Iran was capable of enriching uranium to the weapons grade level of 90 percent, even as he also criticized the leadership of his own country for not giving his government the leeway to reach a deal to renew the nuclear accord.

Rouhani’s “remarks signal Iran could take a more belligerent approach with the West as hard-line President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is due to take office next month,” is how the Associated Press interpreted them.

None of the Iranian violations, however, has had any evident impact on the US position, even as Price acknowledged on Wednesday that there could “come a point where the gains that Iran is able to make in its nuclear program” might “one day outweigh the benefit that the international community would accrue from a mutual return to the JCPOA.” Yet, as he affirmed, “We’re not there yet.”

Attacks on US Forces in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed Forces

Under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US secured a ceasefire in attacks on its forces in Iraq through a dramatic threat that he made to the Iraqi leadership in late September 2020: the US would transfer diplomatic staff from Baghdad to Erbil, after which it would launch massive strikes on those militias involved in attacking US personnel and facilities.

Read More: US warns Iraq on Iranian-backed militias

The result was a ceasefire that pretty much lasted for the rest of the Trump administration. 

However, the attacks resumed after the Biden administration took office, which has responded with two very limited counter-strikes that have failed to stop the militia attacks.

Most recently, on July 7, Ain al-Asad Air Base in western Anbar province was struck by 14 rockets. Two days later, AP reported that Iran had counseled restraint and the militias had responded defiantly.

The report was implausible. Most likely, it was an Iranian attempt to distance itself from the strike on Ain al-Asad. Indeed, a week later, Reuters reported the opposite: Iran had encouraged the militias “to step up” such attacks.

Read More: Iran tells Iraqi militias to attack US, while Pentagon affirms right of self-defense 

Is the US Focus on Restoring the JCPOA the Right Way to Deal with Iran?

The Biden administration generally acknowledges Iran’s malign behavior, but it claims that such behavior would become worse, were Iran to actually acquire nuclear weapons. Therefore, its singular focus on restoring the JCPOA is justified.

As Price affirmed on Wednesday, “Our view continues to be that every single challenge that Iran poses in the non-nuclear realm is made more difficult, when Iran’s nuclear program is unconstrained.”

“If we are able to control and see Iran’s nuclear program once again permanently and verifiably constrained,” he continued, that will enable us to better deal with “the broader set of challenges that Iran poses.”

However, Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Iran, strongly disagrees.

“The Biden administration is on track to relive the same mistakes of the Obama era,” Ben Taleblu told Kurdistan 24, namely to create “an artificial firewall” between “the regime’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats.”

The Biden administration appears to be subordinating almost all issues involving Iran to the goal of restoring the JCPOA, even as little, beyond talking, has actually been achieved.

“If the attempted kidnapping of an American citizen on US soil does not get the Biden administration” to “rethink the nature of the regime” with which it is dealing, “I’m not sure what can,” Ben Taleblu said.

“As long as Iran sees the Biden team pursue the nuclear track with singular focus, it will have no incentive not to up the ante elsewhere,” he concluded.