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US official says sanctions will stay until Iran commits to nuclear deal

Brett McGurk tells Jewish leaders Washington will not take pressure off until it is clear program will be capped and ‘back in a box,’ Forward reports

Brett McGurk, then-US envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, at a news conference at the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, June 7, 2017. (Hadi Mizban/AP)
File: Brett McGurk, then-US envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State, at a news conference at the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, June 7, 2017. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

A top US official spoke to American Jewish leaders Friday on US efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, telling them that no sanctions would be removed from the Islamic Republic before Washington gets clear commitments on Iran’s return to the 2015 accord.

“Until we get somewhere and until we have a firm commitment, and it’s very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is going to be capped, the problematic aspects reversed and back in a box, we are not going to take any of the pressure off,” the National Security Council’s Brett McGurk told leaders, according to quotes provided to the Forward by several individuals on the call.

McGurk is the NSC’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

He said that with talks resuming in Vienna Monday, “there’s a very long way to go and this process is complicated.” But he stressed that the US is “not going to pay anything upfront just to get a process going. We have to see from the Iranians a fundamental commitment and agreement to put their nuclear program back in a box that we can fully inspect and observe.”

Diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran and Russia have been meeting in a luxury Vienna hotel to discuss a return to the deal, while US envoys are participating indirectly in the talks from a nearby hotel.

Journalists wait in front of the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (AP /Florian Schroetter)

Iran has pressed for the United States to lift all sanctions imposed under former president Donald Trump before it rolls back the steps Tehran took away from the 2015 deal in protest.

The Biden administration had repeatedly said that it would only return to the nuclear deal if Iran first returns to compliance. However, on Tuesday, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said at a press conference that Washington would only need to be sure that Iran intended to return to compliance.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that 60-70 percent of issues had been resolved in Vienna.

Israel is worried that the US is rushing too quickly to return to the 2015 accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and is ignoring the concerns of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, notably those in the Gulf.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi will travel to the United States on Sunday to discuss the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and its entrenchment throughout the region. Top Israeli officials are expected to go to Washington in the coming weeks to discuss Iran, amid reports of growing disagreements between the governments as to how to best handle the situation.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a memorial ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery on April 11, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

McGurk told the Jewish leaders that the administration has ” worked with the Israelis every day in the security realm, in terms of their freedom of action — protecting themselves — as something fundamental to us.

“Where we have some disagreement internally there is no disagreement on where we want to go: Iran can never get a nuclear weapon, period. There’s some disagreement about the kind of tactics you might use to get there. But we agree on a lot more than we disagree.”

He said consultations with Israel were “quite constructive.”

“At the end of the day, should we be able to deal with this problem diplomatically, which is our objective, I think the agreement will be very strong and give us confidence for where this is going to go over the many, many years ahead.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Gilad Erdan, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that he firmly rejects the nuclear deal in its current form.

“For Israel, Iran poses an existential threat,” Erdan said. “That is why we will not see ourselves bound by any agreement that does not fully address the threat against the existence of the State of Israel.”

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan speaks at the UN in New York. (Shahar Azran/Israeli Mission to the UN)

Erdan told Kan news on Friday: “The Biden administration also understands that the 2015 agreement was bad, we just disagree on the right way to reach a deal that will stop Iran,”

Israel and the US set up a strategic group, which last convened on April 13, to coordinate their efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. The group is led by President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Earlier this week, Kan news reported that Israel was lobbying the US to push for improved international oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, having concluded there will not be significant changes to the treaty but nonetheless seeking to slightly improve the terms of the pact, which is being negotiated in Vienna.

Proponents of the agreement generally argue that while the deal is imperfect, it was the best possible deal that could be struck under the circumstances and at least postpones the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

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