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USA-Iran: Why Is the Deal Stalled?

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The prospects for talks on an Iranian nuclear deal are becoming increasingly dim. After Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential election in the United States and was sworn in, Washington started to pursue a return to negotiating the JCPOA. The new administration aims to overcome the legacy of Donald Trump, who unilaterally broke the deal even though it was sealed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 of 2015. In 2018, Trump renewed the unilateral US sanctions against Iran, and went on to tighten the restrictive measures even further. Eventually Iran also began to refuse the deal, resuming uranium enrichment to 20% in accordance with the law “On the strategic measures for the lifting of sanctions”.

In April 2021, the parties began indirect negotiations in Vienna, where a meeting of the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) took place. However, the efforts of the diplomats did not bring visible results. For all appearances, the indefinite prolongation of the talks is not in the interests of the United States. From the point of view of the US State Department, the delay allows Iran to move even further in its military nuclear programme. However, getting back to the deal will be difficult. It will be even more difficult to keep it.

The positions of Washington and Tehran on the deal are well known. Iran is demanding that the US first lift all sanctions that the US renewed or introduced in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. After that, Iran will return to fulfilling its obligations. The United States, on the other hand, is demanding that Tehran first return to the deal, and say that only then will it be ready to consider the issue of sanctions. The mutual level of trust between the parties is practically zero. Trump’s demarche to withdraw from the JCPOA seriously undermined the US’s image as a reliable negotiator, not only in Iran, but even among America’s allies. The United States itself is also very suspicious towards Iran. In fact, the Republicans formed the basis of the opposition to Barack Obama’s efforts to conclude a JCPOA. Donald Trump simply brought his party’s position on the “bad deal” to its logical conclusion. It will be extremely difficult to bring the positions of the two countries closer together. In theory, we could talk about synchronising the process of lifting sanctions and winding down the nuclear programme. But here, too, problems arise. What will be the parameters of such a synchronisation? And, most importantly, how is it possible to ensure that one of the parties does not break the new agreements?

For Iran, this issue is more important, if not existential. The resumption of US sanctions in 2018 led to the collapse of the Iranian economy. One of the key factors is the ban on the purchase of Iranian oil. Moreover, the United States is successfully imposing its anti-Iranian sanctions on foreign countries, using secondary sanctions mechanisms and coercive measures. The same applies to oil transportation, the insurance of such transportation, as well as new financial and sectoral sanctions imposed by Trump. The situation has been aggravated by the COVID-19 epidemic. At least a partial lifting of the sanctions would be a breath of fresh air for the Iranian economy. On the other hand, the Iranians also perceive the nuclear programme in an existential way. Intervention by the United States and its allies is unlikely in the current environment. Its price will be high. Moreover, the United States is concentrating its forces on containing the PRC and Russia, curtailing “toxic assets” in the Middle East. But the possession of nuclear weapons can also be seen as a factor that will make such an intervention simply impossible. Here, however, there may be another situation, when the appearance of nuclear weapons, on the contrary, provokes the United States, Israel and other regional players to pursue such an intervention. Apparently, Tehran understands this well and will use the nuclear theme energetically, but carefully.

For the United States, the situation looks very different. The prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons may be unpleasant, but not fatal. Iran is just one of many items on the US foreign policy agenda. Moreover, it can be used as a pretext for an even more radical build-up of sanctions, including the UN Security Council. Moscow and Beijing are also not eager to see Iran among the nuclear powers, although the blame for the Iranian nuclear efforts is being placed on Washington, and not without serious reasons. Acquiring nuclear weapons will strengthen Iran’s isolation. Moreover, it will be politically more difficult to give up nuclear weapons once they have been obtained. The big question is whether Iran is ready for even more severe economic hardship? Answering this question is extremely difficult. Hardliners, for example, might argue that such tests are guaranteed anyway, until Iran surrenders on all fronts. Supporters of diplomacy may respond by combining the rate hike with the coalition game, seeking to isolate the United States under the JCPOA and exploiting loopholes in sanctions regimes.

The debate within the United States itself promises to be difficult. On the surface it seems that the US president has the authority to lift sanctions immediately. President Trump resumed applying the restrictive measures by executive order. Such a decree can be cancelled or modified either by a new executive order or via a new law that could be passed by Congress. That is, technically, Biden has the authority to ease the sanctions on a large scale. However, in reality the situation is more complicated. In 2015, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). In the event of a deal, the president is required to inform Congress every 90 days of its progress and certify that Iran is adhering to the terms of the deal. Obviously, under the current conditions, such certification in favour of Iran is simply impossible. This means that Biden cannot agree to the lifting of sanctions without the risk of serious losses of his political capital. In other words, Tehran’s requests are unacceptable for the US President.

On the other hand, Biden can soften or modify those Trump decrees that he introduced after leaving the deal and which have seriously tightened sanctions. US law does not provide for the president to be accountable for these decrees. So Congress is unlikely to be a major obstacle here. For example, Biden could soften or modify Trump’s executive order 13902 of January 10, 2020, which imposed sectoral and blocking sanctions on the construction, mining, manufacturing, textile and other sectors of the Iranian economy. The same applies to executive order 13871 of May 9, 2019, which introduced sectoral and blocking sanctions on the production of iron, steel, aluminium and copper. In addition, Biden may well be using the sanctions exemptions imposed by numerous laws previously passed by Congress. In particular, in April 2019, Trump cancelled such exemptions for the import of Iranian oil for eight countries. Here the US President has a certain negotiation gap, which he can use to bargain with Iran.

However, even if a new deal is reached, its stability is not guaranteed. One of the reasons is that it is not easy to isolate the nuclear programme from the general package of contradictions between the United States and Iran. At one time, Obama tried to do this, and now Biden is following this path. Republicans and Trump, on the contrary, insisted on a package concept, where the nuclear programme is linked to other problems. These include the missile programme, human rights, the problem of terrorism and much more. The Democratic approach seems reasonable, because it is simply impossible to make progress on the entire package. The Republican approach makes sense as a means of raising rates and building up pressure. The competition between these two approaches is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future, hampering the stability of possible agreements.

From our partner RIAC

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.


Ron Paul: Biden Administration accept that it has a “Zelensky problem”

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Last week the world stood on the very edge of a nuclear war, as Ukraine’s US-funded president, Vladimir Zelensky, urged NATO military action over a missile that landed on Polish soil.”

This is a comment from the prominent American political leader Ronald Ernest Paul was for many years the member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas. Three times he sought the Presidency of the United States: once as the Libertarian Party nominee and twice as a candidate for the Republican Party. He continues in his comment:

“But there was a problem. The missile was fired from Ukraine – likely an accident in the fog of war. Was it actually a Russian missile, of course, that might mean World War III.

‘While Zelensky has been treated as a saint by the US media, the Biden Administration, and both parties in Congress, something unprecedented happened this time: the Biden Administration pushed back. According to press reports, several Zelensky calls to Biden or senior Biden Staff went unanswered.

‘The Biden Administration went on to publicly dispute Zelensky’s continued insistence that Russia shot missiles into NATO-Member Poland. After two days of Washington opposition to his claims, Zelensky finally, sort of, backed down.

‘We’ve heard rumors of President Biden’s frustration over Zelensky’s endless begging and ingratitude for the 60 or so billion dollars doled out to him by the US government, but this is the clearest public example of the Biden Administration’s acceptance that it has a “Zelensky problem.”

‘Zelensky must have understood that Washington and Brussels knew it was not a Russian missile.

‘Considering the vast intelligence capabilities of the US in that war zone, it is likely the US government knew in real time that the missiles were not Russian. For Zelensky to claim otherwise seemed almost unhinged. And for what seems like the first time, Washington noticed.

‘As a result, there has been a minor – but hopefully growing – revolt among conservatives in Washington over this dangerous episode. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene introduced legislation demanding an audit of the tens of billions of dollars shipped to Ukraine – with perhaps $50 billion more in the pipeline.

‘When the Ukraine war hysteria finally dies down – as the Covid hysteria died down before it – it will become obvious to vastly more Americans what an absolute fiasco this whole thing has been,” writes Ron Paul.

International Affairs

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The G20 is dead. Long live the G20

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Image source: International Affairs

The seventeenth G20 Heads of State and Government Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, on 15–16 November stands out as a consequential event from many angles. The international politics is at an inflection point and the transition will not leave unaffected any of the institutions inherited from the past that is drifting away forever. 

However, the G20 can be an exception in bridging time past with time present and time future. The tidings from Bali leave a sense of mixed feelings of hope and despair. The G20 was conceived against the backdrop of the financial crisis in 2007 — quintessentially, a western attempt to burnish the jaded G7 by bringing on board the emerging powers that stood outside it looking in, especially China,  and thereby inject contemporaneity into global discourses. 

The leitmotif was harmony. How far the Bali summit lived up to that expectation is the moot point today. Regrettably, the G7 selectively dragged extraneous issues into the deliberations and its alter ego, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), made its maiden appearance in the Asia-Pacific. Arguably, the latter must be counted as a fateful happening during the Bali summit. 

What happened is a negation of the spirit of the G20. If the G7 refuses to discard its bloc mentality, the cohesion of the G20 gets affected. The G7-NATO joint statement could have been issued from Brussels or Washington or London.  Why Bali? 

The Chinese President Xi Jinping was spot on saying in a written speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Bangkok on November 17 that “The Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for big power contest. No attempt to wage a new cold war will ever be allowed by the people or by the times.” 

Xi warned that “Both geopolitical tensions and the evolving economic dynamics have exerted a negative impact on the development environment and cooperation structure of the Asia-Pacific.” Xi said the Asia-Pacific region was once a ground for big power rivalry, had suffered conflicts and war. “History tells us that bloc confrontation cannot solve any problem and that bias will only lead to disaster.”

The golden rule that security issues do not fall within the purview of G20 has been broken. At the G20 summit, the western countries held the rest of the participants at the Bali summit to ransom: ‘Our way or no way’. Unless the intransigent West was appeased on Ukraine issue, there could be no Bali declaration, so, Russia relented. The sordid drama showed that the DNA of the western world hasn’t changed. Bullying remains its distinguishing trait.

But, ironically, at the end of the day, what stood out was that the Bali Declaration failed to denounce Russia on the Ukraine issue. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey give reason for hope that G20 can regenerate itself. These countries were never western colonies. They are dedicated to multipolarity, which will ultimately compel the West to concede that unilateralism and hegemony is unsustainable. 

This inflection point gave much verve to the meeting between the US President Joe Biden and the Chinese President Xi Jinping at Bali. Washington requested for such a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and Beijing consented. One striking thing about the meeting has been that Xi was appearing on the world stage after a hugely successful Party Congress. 

The resonance of his voice was unmistakable. Xi underscored that the US has lost the plot, when he told Biden: “A statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world.” (here and here)

The White House readouts hinted that Biden was inclined to be conciliatory. The US faces an uphill challenge to isolate China. As things stand, circumstances overall work to China’s advantage. (here , here and here)

The majority of countries have refused to take sides on Ukraine. China’s stance amply reflects it. Xi told Biden that China is ‘highly concerned’ about the current situation in Ukraine and support and look forward to a resumption of peace talks between Russia and China. That said, Xi also expressed the hope that the US, NATO and the EU ‘will conduct comprehensive dialogues’ with Russia.   

The fault lines that appeared at Bali may take new forms by the time the G20 holds its 18th summit in India next year. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic. First and foremost, it is improbable that Europe will go along with the US strategy of weaponising sanctions against China. They cannot afford a decoupling from China, which is the world’s largest trading nation and the principal driver of growth for the world economy. 

Second, much as the battle cries in Ukraine rallied Europe behind the US, a profound rethink is under way. Much agonising is going on about Europe’s commitment to strategic autonomy. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China pointed in that direction. It is inevitable that Europe will distance itself from the US’ cold war aspirations. This process is inexorable in a world where the US is not inclined to spend time, money or effort on its European allies.

The point is, in many ways, America’s capacity to provide effective global economic leadership has irreversibly diminished, having lost its pre-eminent status as the world’s largest economy by a wide margin. Besides, the US is no longer willing or capable of investing heavily in shouldering the burden of leadership. Simply put, it still has nothing on offer to match China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This should have had a chastening influence and prompted a change of mindset toward cooperative policy actions, but the American elite are stuck in the old groove.

Fundamentally, therefore, multilateralism has become much harder in the present-day world situation. Nonetheless, the G20 is the only game in town to bring together the G7 and the aspiring developing countries who stands to gain out of a democratised world order. The western alliance system is rooted in the past. The bloc mentality holds little appeal to the developing countries. The gravitation of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia toward the BRICS conveys a powerful message that the western strategy in conceiving the G20 — to create a ring of subaltern states around the G7 — has outlived its utility. 

The dissonance that was on display in Bali exposed that the US still clings to its entitlement and is willing to play the spoiler. India has a great opportunity to navigate the G20 in a new direction. But it requires profound shifts on India’s part too –away from its US-centric foreign policies, coupled with far-sightedness and  a bold vision to forge a cooperative relationship with China, jettisoning past phobias and discarding self-serving narratives, and, indeed, at the very least, avoiding any further descent into beggar-thy-neighbour policies.


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President Biden under fire

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Republicans announced that they are launching an investigation that will focus on President Biden himself and any illicit or unethical financial ties he had to his son Hunter’s overseas dealings, writes “The Daily Mail”.

Now Joe Biden and his family are facing an onslaught of subpoenas from the House majority members, who say they know where the proverbial bodies are buried.

Rep. James Comer led the press conference, where he made clear that the president himself was the target of the House GOP’s probe. He is a ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, will have the power to issue legally-backed demands for documents, information and testimony once the 188th Congress begins on January 3.

The congressman laid out his plans to use that power to go after the Bidens for alleged wire fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, illegal foreign lobbying and defrauding the government.

The evidence Comer is currently combing through, and is seeking to claw via subpoena, could ultimately result in articles of impeachment for the president and prison for the First Son.

Comer is also asking the Treasury for copies of more than 150 suspicious activity reports (SARs) involving the Bidens, filed by banks under anti-financial crime laws, that could be key to tracing the flows of foreign funds to the family’s coffers.

Amid all the shocking messages involving Joe Biden, possibly the most important email of the 154,000 on Hunter’s abandoned laptop is the infamous ‘big guy’ email, suggesting that the president was secretly involved in, and set to profit from, an alleged Chinese influence operation.

In total Joe met with fifteen of Hunter’s business associates according to White House visitor logs and records from the First Son’s laptop.

Emails on Hunter’s abandoned laptop published by show that Hunter and Joe paid each other’s bills, and Hunter’s business partner Eric Schwerin did Joe’s taxes and visited the then-VP at the White House at least 27 times.

Joe also hosted Hunter’s best friend, business partner and now convicted fraudster Devon Archer at the White House just days before Archer and Hunter were appointed to the Burisma board (Ukraine) in 2014.

Archer was entertained at the West Wing on April 16 2014 according to visitor logs. Joe traveled to Kiev five days later on April 21. The next day, Archer joined the Ukrainian gas company’s board. On April 28, British officials froze $23million in accounts belonging to Burisma owner Mykola Zlochevsky, accusing him of fraud. The following month Hunter also joined the gas firm’s board.

Soon we may see some ugly tricks of Biden’s Ukrainian friends revealed…

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