US envoys headed to Middle East amid concerns over Iran policy

The Biden administration is considering a near wholesale rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions, officials say.
Saturday 01/05/2021
A file photo of Brett McGurk, the White House National Security Council’s Middle East policy coordinator. REUTERS
A file photo of Brett McGurk, the White House National Security Council’s Middle East policy coordinator. (REUTERS)

WASHINGTON--A team of US envoys is traveling to the Middle East this week for talks with key allies, a senior US official said on Wednesday, amid simmering concerns in the region about President Joe Biden’s attempt to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

“A senior inter-agency delegation will be traveling over the coming week to discuss a number of important matters related to US national security and ongoing efforts toward a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East region,” the official said.

The delegation will be led by Brett McGurk, the White House National Security Council’s Middle East policy coordinator and State Department counselor Derek Chollett, a source familiar with the trip said.

While the final itinerary was unclear, there were tentative plans for the team to visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan. Bloomberg News was first to report the news of the trip.

The officials are also expected to discuss the administration’s decision to go ahead with the sale to the UAE of $23 billion in military hardware including 50 F-35 fighters and 18 military drones.

Some US lawmakers have criticised the UAE for its role in the war in Yemen (even if Abu Dhabi has mostly disengaged now from the fighting) and worried that the weapons transfers might violate US guarantees that Israel will retain its military edge in the region.

The Biden administration has been starkly different for Israel and Arab allies than the Trump presidency. Trump’s team negotiated normalisation deals between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, but the Biden team has not kept up the momentum.

Many US allies in the region are troubled by Biden’s attempt to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, fearing a resumption of the accord may eventually allow Tehran to acquire atomic weapons that would leave them vulnerable to Iranian intimidation or military threat.

“They were vehemently against the deal and going right back into it is something that would alarm them,” said a former senior administration official.

Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia began a third round of meetings in Vienna this week aimed at agreeing on steps that would be needed if the agreement, which was abandoned by then-US President Donald Trump in 2018, is to be revived.

US officials told the Associated Press that the Biden administration is considering a near wholesale rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions imposed on Iran in a bid to get the Islamic Republic to return to compliance with a landmark 2015 nuclear accord.

American officials have refused to discuss which sanctions are being considered for removal. But they have said they are open to lifting any sanctions that are inconsistent with the nuclear deal or that deny Iran the relief it would be entitled to, should it return to compliance with the accord. Because of the complex nature of the sanctions architecture, that could include non-nuclear sanctions, such as those tied to terrorism, missile development and human rights.

Under the 2015 agreement, the United States was required to lift sanctions tied to Iran’s nuclear program, but not non-nuclear sanctions.

Administration officials deny they will remove all non-nuclear sanctions, but have declined to identify those which they believe Trump “improperly” imposed on terrorism and other grounds.

“Any return to the JCPOA would require sanctions relief, but we are considering removing only those sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “Even if we rejoin the JCPOA — which remains a hypothetical — we would retain and continue to implement sanctions on Iran for activities not covered by the JCPOA, including Iran’s missile proliferation, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses.”

Iran is demanding the removal of all sanctions. If the US doesn’t lift at least some of them, Iran says it won’t agree to halt its nuclear activities barred by the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

But if the Biden administration makes concessions that go beyond the nuclear-specific sanctions, Republican critics and others, including Israel and Gulf Arab states, are likely to seize on them as proof that the administration is caving to Iran. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has led the charge among Trump former aides to denounce any easing of sanctions.

Sanctions imposed on Iran’s Central Bank, its national oil and shipping companies, its manufacturing, construction and financial sectors could be on the block.

Current officials say no decisions have yet been made and nothing will be agreed in Vienna until everything regarding sanctions relief and Iran’s return to compliance with the nuclear deal has been settled.

“The administration is looking to allow tens of billions of dollars into the coffers of the regime even if it means lifting sanctions on major entities blacklisted for terrorism and missile proliferation,” said Mark Dubowitz, a prominent Iran deal critic and CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.