A A US Navy helicopter and patrol boat prevented an Iranian vessel from capturing a US marine drone in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, marking the latest high-level clash between the two nations as they negotiate a possible return to the nuclear deal of 2015.
The Biden administration and Iranian officials have exchanged written responses in recent weeks in search of a deal that would lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on advancing Iran’s nuclear program. Diplomats from the United States, Europe and Iran discuss details of the potential plan in hopes of reinstating the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While a deal may be within reach for US and Iranian diplomats, a series of recent military and other clashes between the two nations threaten progress. In the past month alone, US forces and Iran-backed militias have traded attacks inside Syria that have injured three US service members and killed four militants.
Iran-related threats have also struck closer to home recently. On August 10, the FBI indicted an Iranian national for conspiracy to kill former national security adviser John Bolton. Five days later, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in New York by a suspect believed to have been motivated by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 religious edict, or fatwa, to kill the writer.
The administration says nuclear negotiations must remain separate from other disputes, but the growing clashes are complicating President Joe Biden’s efforts to not just reach a deal, but to sell it to the American people. The administration must subject any deal reached with Iran to a 30-day congressional review. While the current Congress is unlikely to be able to kill the deal, it could weigh heavily during the final days of midterm elections in November.
If Biden removes all terrorism-related sanctions, he will be attacked from the right for looking soft. Critics in Congress, mostly Republicans, have lambasted any prospect of rolling back sanctions worth billions of dollars and forging a lasting deal with a nation that shows no signs of slowing down what they call ‘malicious activity’ .
On Tuesday, the US Navy said in a statement that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attempted to tow an unmanned surface vessel, dubbed a Saildrone Explorer, around 11 p.m. local time Monday into the waters. international. The USS Thunderbolt was in the area and immediately responded, the navy said, while an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter was launched from a nearby base in Bahrain. Upon arriving at the scene, the IRGC disconnected the tow line from the drone, which was equipped with sensors, radars and cameras, and about four hours later left the area.
“This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s destabilizing, illegal and unprofessional activity in the Middle East,” said General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who commands all US forces in the region.
The JCPOA addresses just one of many areas of disagreement between Washington and Tehran, so it’s no surprise that friction continues elsewhere, says Ali Vaez, Iran Project director at the International Crisis Group. “Iran and the United States are demonstrating that they can walk and chew gum at the same time: negotiate to restore the nuclear deal as if there were no regional tension and push back regionally as s ‘there were no nuclear negotiations,’ he said. “However, there is always a risk that tensions over regional competition will spill over into the nuclear talks. If there is a single American killed in the area, restoring the JCPOA will become a hundred times more difficult.
Administration officials have publicly insisted that the JCPOA talks did not affect US military actions. But Middle East observers noted that it took US forces eight days to respond to Aug. 15 drone and rocket attacks by Iranian proxy groups on two different US facilities in Syria. When US warplanes launched airstrikes on proxy positions in eastern Syria, the bombings were carried out to “limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties”, according to to a military statement.
Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters Aug. 24 at the Pentagon that the U.S. military initially identified 11 bunkers but only hit nine as it appeared from the sky as if there was human activity near two of them. “We held off hitting them out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “The administration has been pretty clear that if Iran returns to comply with the JCPOA, it’s in our interest because it takes Iran even further away from a nuclear weapons capability. But let the JCPOA is reborn or not, it actually has nothing to do with our will and determination to defend ourselves.
When President Donald Trump abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018, his administration turned the global financial system into a weapon against Tehran. His “maximum pressure campaign” resulted in more than 1,500 sanctions against Iran’s government, as well as companies and individuals doing business there, and targeted the country’s central bank, state oil company and others. vital sectors of its economy. This has triggered an exodus of companies and financial institutions that would rather abandon their investments in Iran than risk sanctions from the US Treasury Department. Iran’s oil exports, which support the economy, have fallen to historic lows.
By withdrawing from the deal, however, the United States paved the way for Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program further than in the past. Since Trump’s decision, Tehran has produced stockpiles of enriched uranium at 60% purity, closer to the 90% purity required to make nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). the United Nations monitoring body.
To bring Tehran back into compliance, the Biden administration has shown willingness to roll back some, but not all, of the economic sanctions. Either way, the deal will result in significant terrorism sanctions relief if reached, 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 organization. who has long lobbied against the JCPOA. “There will be immediate sanctions relief for several sectors of the Iranian economy linked to the IRGC,” he said, adding that sanctions will be lifted against the country’s central bank and oil company, which are among the principal financiers of the IRGC.
Biden officials do not dispute that Iran and the IRGC are adversaries intent on expanding their influence in the Middle East, either directly through military force and Iran-backed political groups as they did in Iraq and Syria, by financing and equipping proxies. like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. However, the closer they get to a deal, the bigger the question for the administration: how many attacks is Washington willing to tolerate to restore the nuclear deal?
More Must-Try Stories from TIME