Politics Flurry of diplomatic contacts fuel Iran deal speculation
Iran's top diplomat speaks bluntly on nuclear deal, Gen. Qassam Soleimani in leaked recording
The release of the comments by Mohammad Javad Zarif, seen as a potential presidential candidate, set off a firestorm within Iran.The release of the comments by Mohammad Javad Zarif set off a firestorm within Iran, where officials carefully mind their words amid a cut-throat political environment that includes the powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, ultimately overseen by the country's supreme leader. Zarif has been suggested as a possible candidate for Iran's June 18 presidential election as well.
WASHINGTON (AP) — A flurry of diplomatic contacts and reports of major progress suggest that indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran may be nearing an agreement. That’s despite efforts by U.S. officials to play down chances of an imminent deal that would bring Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
With the negotiations in Vienna on hiatus, the U.S. and Britain on Monday denied Iranian reports that any agreement was at hand with Iran for a swap of American and British prisoners. Such an exchange could be a confidence-building measure to revive the nuclear deal.
'This certainly was not secret': State Department defends John Kerry over Iran leaks claim
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claims in a new audio recording that former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him of Israeli military operations in Syria — but U.S. officials are brushing off the statement, saying the Israeli strikes were public knowledge. © Provided by Washington Examiner "This is purportedly leaked material. Can't speak to the authenticity. Can't speak to the accuracy of it. Can't speak to any motives that may be behind its dissemination,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.
A U.S. return to the deal would be the biggest and most controversial foreign policy initiative in the early months of Joe Biden's presidency. It would revive a deal that top Biden aides put together during their years in the Obama administration, only to see President Donald Trump pull out and try to prevent the U.S. from ever returning. Rejoining it — and making the concessions required to do so — would enrage Republicans and likely unsettle Israel and Gulf Arab allies.
Even as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the prisoner swap reports at a news conference Monday in London, senior American diplomats were in the Middle East meeting Gulf Arab leaders. And two of the nuclear deal's biggest proponents in Congress — Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Chris Murphy — were touring the region.
US eyes major rollback in Iran sanctions to revive nuke deal
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is considering a near wholesale rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions imposed on Iran in a bid to get the Islamic Republic to return to compliance with a landmark 2015 nuclear accord, according to current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the matter. As indirect talks continue this week in Vienna to explore the possibility of reviving the nuclear deal, American officials have become increasingly expansive about what they might be prepared to offer Iran, which has been driving a hard line on sanctions relief, demanding that all U.S. penalties be removed, according to these people.
Those discussions follow a week of top-level meetings in Washington between Biden; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; Blinken; his deputy, Wendy Sherman; special Iran envoy Rob Malley; and others with the head of Israel's spy agency and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top national security aide.
The Israelis are adamantly opposed to any U.S. rapprochement with Iran, which they regard as an existential threat to the Jewish state. At least three separate meetings were held with the Israelis last week, including one Friday with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at which Biden made an appearance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Cohen was briefed on the Vienna discussions “and the progress being made there.”
Later Friday, and on Saturday, reports emerged from Iran and Iran-linked media outlets that an agreement had been struck on what the U.S. would provide in return for Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 deal, which had given billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. On Sunday reports of the prisoner swap deal emerged.
Biden faces GOP handcuffs and Dem skeptics on Iran deal 2.0
Republicans are working to make sure that Biden can't roll back sanctions on Tehran as the administration tries to make progress in negotiations.GOP hawks are making sure that they'll have a say, and potentially an effective veto power, over any attempt by the Biden administration to roll back the aggressive sanctions that former President Donald Trump levied on Tehran after withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear nonproliferation accord with Iran.
U.S. officials were quick to bat those reports down as premature and inaccurate, although the broad contours of potential sanctions relief are well-known and Washington has made no secret of its eagerness to free Americans held in Iran.
Administration officials have allowed that limited progress has been made at the talks in Vienna, where Malley is heading the U.S. delegation. Malley was a key figure in the Obama administration's negotiation of the original nuclear deal in 2015, as were Sherman and Sullivan, who respectively led those talks and took part in secret meetings that paved the way for the agreement.
The Biden administration reacted sharply to the Iranian reports. The State Department said “we are not at the cusp of any breakthrough” and dismissed the prisoner swap claim as false. “Unfortunately, that report is untrue," White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Sunday.
Sullivan himself has been cautious in public comments about the talks, stressing that things stand at a “unclear place in Vienna.” At a virtual meeting of the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, he underscored that the talks were a “real negotiation” while acknowledging the indirect nature of the discussions have made the undertaking somewhat “inefficient.”
Advocates: No Iran Nuclear Talks Till Hostages Are Freed
Human rights advocates, former hostages and some members of Congress are urging the Biden administration not to seriously engage with Tehran on reinstating the nuclear deal until all U.S. and Western hostages held in Iran are released, thus maintaining maximum leverage for their safe return. "There should be no sanctions relief until at least the hostages are released and an agreement [is] in place" to prevent hostage taking from happening again, said Jason Poblete, a human rights attorney who represented released hostages Nizar Zakka and Xiyue Wang. Both Zakka and Wang were held for years in Iran before their release in 2019.
“I guess good faith is always in the eye of the beholder and we believe the Iranians have come in a serious way to have serious discussions about details and the teams are working through those details now,” he said.
Thus, the surge in diplomatic activity as negotiators prepare for a fourth round of talks in Vienna has given supporters of the deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018 reason for hope. And it has caused deal opponents great angst.
Complicating any potential resolution either in the short- or medium-term is the significant array of opponents lined up to try to frustrate a deal. In addition to the Gulf Arabs and Israel, there is strong opposition from Republican members of Congress who are already trying to pass legislation to block it. In Iran, elements of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appear to be using the Vienna talks to thwart a candidacy of Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif in presidential elections this year.
Deal critics have taken issue with the negotiating tactics of Malley and his colleagues, alleging that they are giving away the leverage on Iran that Trump created when he pulled out of the deal and imposed sweeping new sanctions. In fact, any U.S. return to the deal would require the easing of many of those sanctions, including possibly ones that were imposed for non-nuclear reasons, such as terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses.
Deal supporters, on the other hand, have lashed out at that criticism, accusing the other side of rejecting diplomacy and cheerleading for war. They argue that sanctions relief is the only way to bring Iran back into compliance with the agreement and shut down its pathways to a nuclear weapon.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.
EXPLAINER: What's next for pipelines after Colonial hack .
WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s largest fuel pipeline is flowing again after the company that runs it it was hit by a gang of hackers. But long lines remain at gas stations throughout the Southeast. That's because drivers are buying more gasoline then they need, draining supplies at filling stations. Plus, there are logistical hurdles slowing fuel deliveries of fuel from the Colonial Pipeline. The incident was one of a series of wake-up calls about the growing threat hackers pose to the nation's critical infrastructure.