A U.S. Navy helicopter and patrol ship stopped an Iranian vessel from capturing an American sea drone in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, marking the latest high-profile 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 against Iran in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Diplomats from the U.S., Europe and Iran are discussing the details of the potential plan in hopes of restoring the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Even as a deal may be coming within reach of American and Iranian diplomats, however, a string of recent military and other confrontations between the two nations threatens the progress. In the past month alone American forces and Iran-backed militias have traded attacks inside Syria that have left three U.S. service members wounded and four militants killed.
Iran-linked threats have also recently struck closer to home. On Aug. 10, the FBI indicted an Iranian national for a plot to kill former National Security Adviser John Bolton. Five days later, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in New York by a suspect allegedly motivated by the late-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 religious decree, or fatwa, to kill the writer.
The Administration says nuclear negotiations must remain separate from other disputes, but the rising confrontations complicate President Joe Biden’s efforts not only to achieve 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 congressional review. Although it’s unlikely that the current Congress can kill the deal, it could loom large during the final days of the midterm elections in November.
If Biden removes any terrorism-related sanctions, he will be attacked from the right for looking soft. Critics in Congress, primarily Republicans, have blasted any prospect of rolling back sanctions worth billions of dollars and forging a lasting agreement with a nation that shows no signs of abating what they call “malign activities.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy said in a statement that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attempted to tow away an unmanned surface vessel, dubbed a Saildrone Explorer, around 11 p.m. local time on Monday in international waters. The USS Thunderbolt was in the area and immediately responded, the Navy said, while a MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter launched from a base nearby in Bahrain. Once they arrived on-scene the IRGC disconnected the towing line 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 activity in the Middle East,” said General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who commands all U.S. forces in the region.
The JCPOA only addresses one of several areas of disagreement between Washington and Tehran, so it’s not surprising that friction continues elsewhere, says Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. “Both Iran and the U.S. are demonstrating that they can walk and chew gum at the same time: negotiate to restore the nuclear deal as if there is no regional tension and push back regionally as if there are no nuclear negotiations,” he says. “There is, however, always a risk that tensions over regional competition spill over into the nuclear talks. If there is a single American killed in the region, restoring the JCPOA will become a hundred times more difficult.”
Administration officials have publicly insisted that JCPOA talks have not affected U.S. military actions. But Middle East watchers noted that it took eight days for U.S. forces to respond to Aug. 15 drone and rocket attacks by Iranian proxy groups on two different American installations in Syria. When American fighter jets did launch airstrikes on the proxy positions in eastern Syria, the bombing runs were made to “limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties,” according to a military statement.
Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters Aug. 24 at the Pentagon, that the U.S. military had initially identified 11 bunkers, but only struck nine because it appeared from the sky as if there was human activity near two of them. “We held off striking those out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “The Administration has been pretty clear that in the event that Iran moves back into compliance with the JCPOA, that’s in our interest, because it pushes Iran further away from a nuclear weapons capability. But whether the JCPOA is reborn or not, it actually has nothing to do with our willingness and resolve to defend ourselves.”
When President Donald Trump abrogated the 2015 nuclear agreement in May 2018, his administration turned the global financial system into a weapon against Tehran. His “maximum-pressure campaign” resulted in more than 1,500 sanctions against the Iranian government, as well as companies and individuals who did business there, and targeted the nation’s central bank, national oil company and other vital sectors of its economy. It triggered an exodus of corporations and financial institutions that would rather abandon their investments in Iran than risk U.S. Treasury Department sanctions. Iran’s economy-sustaining oil exports plunged to historic lows.
By pulling out of the deal, however, the U.S. paved the way for Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program further than it has in the past. Since Trump’s move, Tehran has produced stocks of uranium enriched to 60% purity, closer toward the 90% purity required for fabricating nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. watchdog.
To get Tehran back into compliance, the Biden Administration has shown a willingness to roll back some of the economic penalties—but not all of them. Either way, there will be significant terrorism sanctions-relief in the deal if it is achieved, says Richard Goldberg, who served on the Trump Administration’s National Security Council and is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-profit that has long-lobbied against the JCPOA. “There will be upfront sanctions-relief for multiple IRGC-connected sectors of Iran’s economy,” he says, adding that sanctions will be lifted on the nation’s central bank and oil company, which are among IRGC’s most important financiers.
There is no dispute among Biden officials that Iran and the IRGC are adversaries that intend to expand their influence in the Middle East, either directly through military force and Iranian-backed political groups as they have in Iraq and Syria, or by funding and equipping proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The closer they get to a deal, however, the starker the question facing the Administration: just how many attacks is Washington willing to tolerate in order to restore the nuclear deal.
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