WASHINGTON: Western officials have largely lost hope the Iran nuclear deal can be resurrected, sources familiar with the matter said, forcing them to weigh how to limit Iran’s nuclear programme even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has divided the big powers.

While they have not completely given up on the pact, under which Iran restrained its nuclear programme in return for relief from economic sanctions, there is a growing belief it may be beyond salvation.

Four Western diplomats said that the deal -- which Iran struck with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States in 2015 but which then-US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 — was withering away.

The pact appeared on the brink of revival in early March when the European Union, which coordinates the talks, invited ministers to Vienna to seal the deal. But talks were thrown into disarray over last-minute Russian demands and whether Washington might remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) list.

Tehran wants Washington to remove IRGC from foreign terrorist list

The IRGC controls elite armed and intelligence forces that Washington accuses of a global terrorist campaign.

Tehran’s demand to remove it from the list is opposed by many US lawmakers, who see it as a terrorist entity despite Iranian denials.

The Russian demands appear to have been finessed but the IRGC designation has not, with the impending Nov 8 US mid-term elections making it hard for US President Joe Biden to buck domestic opposition to remove it.

Biden’s aides have made clear they have no plans to drop the IRGC from the list but have not ruled it out, saying if Tehran wants Washington to take such a step beyond strict revival of the deal, named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) then Iran must address US concerns outside the deal.

“If they’re not prepared to drop extraneous demands, continue to insist on lifting the FTO, and refuse to address our concerns that go beyond the JCPOA then, yes, we’re going to reach an impasse that is probably not going to be surmountable,” said a senior US official.

“Is it dead? We don’t know yet and frankly we don’t think Iran knows either,” the official said.

So far, Iran seems unwilling to budge on the FTO removal.

“That is our redline and we will not cave on that,” said an Iranian security official.

Neither side wants to admit nearly a year of indirect talks may have failed, several sources said.

As a result, events may drift, with the world focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting oil price spike allowing Iran to earn more from its oil exports that evade US sanctions.

“I don’t think anybody wants to say enough is enough,” said a Western diplomat. “Does this go on indefinitely with neither side conceding that it’s over? ... Probably.”

No real ‘Plan B’

Despite talk of a US “Plan B” to address Iran’s nuclear programme if the deal cannot be revived, there are few good options.

Short of US or Israeli military action to destroy Iranian nuclear sites, the main lever big powers have is to cut Iran’s oil exports.

While Washington won the tacit support of Moscow and Beijing to curb Iranian exports via US sanctions in the years before the 2015 deal, there is no such consensus among the big powers.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2022

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