Uncertainty grows over JCPOA revival as US refuses to delist IRGC, even as compromise may yet be found

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, second right, receives an explanation while visiting an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Photo: Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, second right, receives an explanation while visiting an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Photo: Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – US officials have grown more skeptical about prospects for renewing the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which former president Donald Trump left in 2018.

A key obstacle has emerged: the US is not prepared to remove Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of "foreign terrorist organizations" (FTOs), as Iran has demanded.

The IRGC was placed on the FTO list in 2019 by the Trump administration, a year after it withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Last Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the two sides were "close to an agreement in the negotiations," triggering reports that a deal would follow shortly.

In a telephone briefing to reporters on Friday, Apr. 8, the State Department's Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter advised that contrary to those reports, an agreement was "neither imminent nor certain at this time."

US officials have used that phrasing before. However, it is notable that on Apr. 6, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking from Brussels where he was attending a NATO Foreign Ministers' Conference, told NBC News, "I'm not overly optimistic at the prospects of actually getting an agreement to conclusion, despite all the efforts we put into it."

The recent US statements stand in contrast to the optimism expressed by Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, as recently as Mar. 26.

"We are very close, but there are still some issues pending," Borrell told reporters at the Doha Forum in Qatar, as the EU diplomat who chairs the nuclear talks in Vienna, Enrique Mora, traveled to Iran.

Mora's visit was apparently not very successful. Tehran let it be known that the US had to remove the IRGC from its FTO list as a condition for concluding a new agreement. 

US Won't take IRGC Off Sanctions List—may be a deal-breaker, but hope springs eternal

On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee. They were asked about delisting the IRGC by Sen. Dan Sullivan (Republican, Alaska.)

"There are press reports that the JCPOA under consideration," Sullivan told them, will include US agreement "to delist the IRGC as an organization that sponsors terrorism."

"The Iranians want it," Sullivan said. 

"You gentlemen, unfortunately, have led troops, some of our finest—over 2,000 wounded and killed by the Quds Force [and the] IRGC with the weapons they supplied [to] Iraqi Shia militias," he added emphasizing Iran's decades-long hostility to the US.

"Is there any universe in which the two of you could say you support the delisting of this terrorist organization with blood of American soldiers on its hands," Sullivan asked, "and delist them for state-sponsored terrorism because Iran wants it?"

Austin did not respond, but Milley replied, "In my personal opinion, I believe the IRGC-Quds Force to be a terrorist organization and I do not support them being delisted from the foreign terrorist organization [list]."

The next day, on Friday, the State Department's Porter was asked, "Can you say whether the Biden administration shares General Milley's view that the IRGC's Qods Force specifically should remain on the US list of terror organizations?"

"The President shares the chairman's view that IRGC Qods Forces are terrorists, and beyond that we aren't going to comment on any of the topics in the nuclear talks," Porter replied. "But what I would say is out of the 107 Biden administration designations in relation to Iran, 86 have specifically targeted the IRGC-related persons as well as affiliates."

Later on Friday, the long-time, exceptionally well-informed Washington Post columnist David Ignatius published a column titled "Biden won't remove Iran's Revolutionary Guard from terror list. He's right."

Ignatius made clearer the US position. "A senior administration official told me that President Biden doesn't intend to concede on the terrorist designation, even though this may be a deal-breaker," he wrote.

However, "European countries have urged the United States to find a compromise formula that will save the deal, whose basic provisions have been negotiated in Vienna over the past year."

Iranian-backed attacks against US and its Partners

However, Ignatius also cited the Biden administration's concern over the safety of US personnel—an issue that was dramatically raised by Sen. Sullivan—as well as the views of US Middle East allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Ignatius noted "the latest example of suspected Iranian-backed activity was an artillery attack early Thursday on a base" in northeast Syria, "Green Village," that the US shares with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.) The attack injured four US soldiers.

Moreover, 24 hours later, on the other side of the Syrian-Iraq border, early on Friday, Iranian-backed elements launched an armed drone against Iraq's Al Asad Air Base in Anbar Province, where US forces are stationed. 

Although the US shot down the drone, and it caused no damage, Tehran seemed to be making a point.

And the day before, Iranian-backed elements targeted an oil refinery in the Kurdistan Region. 

The refinery's run by the KAR group, the largest energy firm in the Kurdistan Region. It was the second attack against the KAR Group in as many months and appeared to be an Iranian warning to the Kurdistan Regional Government against increasing oil production, as Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has suggested.

Read More: Rockets and institutions aim to stop Kurdistan Region from becoming main energy supplier: PM Barzani

Opposition of America's Middle Eastern Allies

Ignatius also stated that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all had grave doubts about the renewal of the JCPOA and were closely watching what the US was doing. 

Those states regard the deal as fatally flawed and argue that it will not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, as its advocates claim because it includes "sunset" clauses. 

Key limits on Iran's nuclear activities expire.

"The single biggest problem with this deal is that in two and a half years, which is right around the corner, Iran will be able to develop, install and operate advanced centrifuges," Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated earlier this year, as he warned, "The emerging deal is likely to create a more violent and less stable Middle East."

Saudi Arabia and the UAE view the deal similarly—and their opposition is costing the West in its confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

The two oil-producing countries have rejected US and European requests to increase production. Energy supplies are proving crucial in the confrontation over Ukraine, as Europe suddenly recognizes the consequences of the dependency that it has allowed itself to develop on Russia for oil and gas. 

The EU would like to impose tough sanctions on Moscow for its unprovoked aggression. But it has discovered that it is not in a position to do so because it, particularly Germany, the EU's largest economy, relies so much on Russia for its energy supplies.