U.S., Iran Clash Over Sea Drone As Nuke Talks Advance

AThe U.S. Navy’s patrol vessel and helicopter prevented an Iranian ship from being captured in the Persian Gulf. It was the latest major clash between the countries, as the two negotiate the possibility of a return to 2015’s nuclear accord.

The Biden Administration and Iranian officials have exchanged written responses in recent weeks in pursuit of a deal that would lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s advancing nuclear program. The details of the plan are being discussed by diplomats from Europe, the U.S. and Iran in the hope of returning to the multilateral 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Although a deal might be within the reach of American diplomats and Iranian diplomats alike, recent military and other clashes between the countries threaten to impede the process. Three U.S. soldiers were wounded in an attack on Syria by Iran-backed militias over the last month. Four militants were also killed.

Recently, Iran-linked threats also struck close to home. The FBI charged an Iranian national with plotting to murder John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor. Five days later, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in New York by a suspect allegedly motivated by the late-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 religious decree, or fatwa, to kill the writer.

The Administration says nuclear negotiations must remain separate from other disputes, but the rising confrontations complicate President Joe Biden’s efforts not only to achieve a deal but to sell it to the American people. Any deal the Administration agrees with Iran must be submitted for review by Congress within 30 days. Although it’s unlikely that the current Congress can kill the deal, it could loom large during the final days of the midterm elections in November.

Biden will face criticism from the right if he removes any terrorist-related sanctions. Critics in Congress, primarily Republicans, have blasted any prospect of rolling back sanctions worth billions of dollars and forging a lasting agreement with a nation that shows no signs of abating what they call “malign activities.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy said in a statement that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attempted to tow away an unmanned surface vessel, dubbed a Saildrone Explorer, around 11 p.m. local time on Monday in international waters. This is the USS ThunderboltNavy responded immediately to the call. A MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter flew from a Bahraini base. The IRGC disengaged the towing cable to the drone after they arrived. It was fitted with sensors, radars, cameras and other equipment. They left approximately four hours later.

“This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal, and unprofessional activity in the Middle East,” said General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who commands all U.S. forces in the region.

The JCPOA only addresses one of several areas of disagreement between Washington and Tehran, so it’s not surprising that friction continues elsewhere, says Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. “Both Iran and the U.S. are demonstrating that they can walk and chew gum at the same time: negotiate to restore the nuclear deal as if there is no regional tension and push back regionally as if there are no nuclear negotiations,” he says. “There is, however, always a risk that tensions over regional competition spill over into the nuclear talks. If there is a single American killed in the region, restoring the JCPOA will become a hundred times more difficult.”

JCPOA talks are not believed to have affected U.S. military action, according to administration officials. Middle East observers noticed that U.S. forces took eight days to respond to the Aug. 15 Iranian proxy group’s drone and missile attacks on two American facilities in Syria. When American fighter jets did launch airstrikes on the proxy positions in eastern Syria, the bombing runs were made to “limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties,” according to a military statement.

Colin Kahl was the undersecretary for defense policy and told reporters August 24 at Pentagon that although the U.S. military originally identified eleven bunkers, it only managed to strike nine. It appeared as if human activity could be found near two of the bunkers. “We held off striking those out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “The Administration has been pretty clear that in the event that Iran moves back into compliance with the JCPOA, that’s in our interest, because it pushes Iran further away from a nuclear weapons capability. But whether the JCPOA is reborn or not, it actually has nothing to do with our willingness and resolve to defend ourselves.”

Trump’s May 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal turned the world’s financial system against Tehran. His “maximum-pressure campaign” resulted in more than 1,500 sanctions against the Iranian government, as well as companies and individuals who did business there, and targeted the nation’s central bank, national oil company and other vital sectors of its economy. This triggered a mass exodus among financial institutions and corporations that preferred to abandon Iran investments than face sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department. Iran’s economy-sustaining oil exports plunged to historic lows.

However, by withdrawing from the deal, the U.S. opened the door for Iran to further develop its nuclear weapons programme than in the past. Since Trump’s move, Tehran has produced stocks of uranium enriched to 60% purity, closer toward the 90% purity required for fabricating nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. watchdog.

To get Tehran back into compliance, the Biden Administration has shown a willingness to roll back some of the economic penalties—but not all of them. Either way, there will be significant terrorism sanctions-relief in the deal if it is achieved, says Richard Goldberg, who served on the Trump Administration’s National Security Council and is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-profit that has long-lobbied against the JCPOA. “There will be upfront sanctions-relief for multiple IRGC-connected sectors of Iran’s economy,” he says, adding that sanctions will be lifted on the nation’s central bank and oil company, which are among IRGC’s most important financiers.

Biden officials agree that Iran is an enemy that seeks to grow their power in the Middle East. They can do this either by supporting proxies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Syria with Iranian-backed groups. But, they are closer to reaching a deal. This raises the obvious question: how many more attacks can Washington take to restore the nuclear agreement?

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