US says despite progress in talks, Iran nuclear deal ‘neither imminent nor certain’

Responding to reports that Washington readying to delist IRGC as terror group before JCPOA revival, State Department spokesman insists Biden committed to preventing nuclear Iran

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, March 10, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / POOL / AFP)
US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, March 10, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / POOL / AFP)

US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday sought to lower growing expectations of a forthcoming agreement between the country and Iran on a joint return to the 2015 nuclear accord, saying that “an agreement is neither imminent nor is it certain.”

During the daily press briefing, Price acknowledged the “significant progress” that world powers negotiating in Vienna have made in recent weeks, before expressing some significant caveats.

“In fact, we are preparing equally for scenarios with and without a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” he said.

“President Biden has made a commitment that Iran under his watch will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. And that commitment is as true and sturdy in a world in which we have a JCPOA and one in which we don’t.”

Price had been asked to comment on reports that the US is preparing to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group, as a final step in the talks that would pave the way for an agreement.

The spokesman reiterated the response given to The Times of Israel on Saturday by a State Department official, who declined to comment on the details of what is being discussed in Vienna.

But that official said the US is “prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to JCPOA limits,” not denying that delisting the IRGC is potentially on the table. The official added that Iran is more dangerous when its nuclear program is unrestricted and that reeling Tehran in on that front must be the top priority.

Analysts have also pointed out that delisting the IRGC would be a largely symbolic step. the Guards were only added to the terror list three years ago by former president Donald Trump, after successive presidents from both parties refrained from taking the step. The move will also not scrap the many economic sanctions the US has in place against the IRGC.

But these arguments have not satisfied the Israeli government, which has launched a public campaign against the growing expectation that Washington will go through with the delisting.

On Friday, and again on Sunday, Bennett issued public comments strongly criticizing the United States for reportedly considering delisting the IRGC.

“We are very concerned about the United States’ intention to give in to Iran’s outrageous demand and remove the IRGC from the list of terrorist organizations,” he said Sunday. “Even now, the IRGC terrorist organization is trying to murder certain Israelis and Americans around the world. Unfortunately, there is still determination to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any cost – including saying that the world’s largest terrorist organization is not a terrorist organization. This is too high a price.”

On Monday, Bennett said he has no intention of creating a public rift with the United States over the renewed nuclear deal with Iran, which he said he believes Washington will sign no matter what.

Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran’s nuclear agency (left), and Iran’s governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharib Abadi, leave the International Atomic Energy’s General Conference in Vienna, Austria, on September 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

“In 2015 [ahead of the first deal], the pre-signing rhetoric was at its peak, and it failed. The deal was signed,” Bennett told a conference organized by the Ynet news site. “Not only was it signed, but after that, ears in Washington were closed on all other matters.”

Bennett added: “I do not get into quarrels just for the sake of quarrels. I will only go to war if there is a real chance of success and a worthy purpose.”

According to Army Radio, Bennett told cabinet ministers privately on Sunday that Israel had to choose its battles with the US carefully, and was currently focusing on the IRGC delisting.

“We pick our battles with the Americans; there’s no reason for an international campaign against the nuclear deal — because it will be signed,” Bennett reportedly told ministers. “We’ll fight only where there’s a purpose, as in the case of the IRGC, which we’re still trying to stop.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a conference organized by the Ynet news site in Jerusalem, March 21, 2022. (Screen capture)

Ahead of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, signed under then-US president Barack Obama, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu waged a very public campaign against the agreement, going as far as giving an address to the US Congress opposing the deal, despite Obama’s support for it. The deal was ultimately signed, and Netanyahu’s speech was seen as further fracturing the relationship between Israel and that administration, as well as with the Democratic party.

Bennett said Monday that the Americans “are fully determined to sign the deal, and they will sign the deal.” But he added that “this time, unlike in 2015,” Israel was prepared with a “massive buildup” of military power, “in billions of shekels, at an almost unprecedented scope.”

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