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Trita Parsi: War Could Be on Horizon If Iran Nuclear Deal Is Not Restored Soon

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Will the U.S. and Iran revive the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by the Trump administration? President Biden is facing heat from lawmakers in both parties who oppose the deal, which would relax U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. At the crux of the debate is the Iranian request for Biden to lift the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, which would have a high political cost for the administration. With threats between the two nations mounting, a deal becomes more urgent to avoid the situation spiraling into military confrontation, says Trita Parsi, author of multiple books on U.S.-Iran relations.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This week marks one year since talks resumed with Iran over reviving the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which was abandoned by Donald Trump. In an interview with MSNBC, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said he’s not certain a deal can be reached.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: I’m not overly optimistic at the prospects of actually getting an agreement to conclusion, despite all the efforts we put into it and despite the fact that I believe we would be — our security would be better off. We’re not there. We’ll have to see if we can close —

ANDREA MITCHELL: Is time running out?

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: Time is getting extremely short.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, Iran said the United States is responsible for the delay in talks with world powers aimed at restoring the deal. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Monday talks in Vienna are deadlocked over a few outstanding issues, including Washington’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.

SAEED KHATIBZADEH: [translated] Mr. Biden and the White House have not made their decision, and, unfortunately, they have held an entire agreement hostage to partisan and international U.S. matters. They are taking the same approach that has caused the failure of many international agreements. … We are at a point where the United States must decide whether it wants to uphold Trump’s legacy, just as it has done so far, or if it wants to act as a semi-responsible, if not a fully responsible, government and have the agreement happen.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is facing pressure from Republican lawmakers, as well as some Democrats, who oppose his efforts to restore the deal. Eighteen House Democrats came out against a potential deal earlier this week.

We’re joined now by Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, author of the book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, as well as A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. Trita recently wrote an article headlined “Without the Iran nuclear deal, war is on the horizon.”

Trita, talk about what happened this week and if you do see a deal in sight.

TRITA PARSI: I certainly do see a deal in sight. In fact, almost all of the issues have been resolved. The key remaining sticking point is the Iranian demand that the IRGC be taken off of one of the United States’s terrorist lists, that it was added on by the Trump administration in a deliberate effort to make it more difficult for a future U.S. president to come back into the deal. We have to be quite frank. This request by the Iranians is rather meaningless, in the sense that it doesn’t carry much substance. Even if they’re taken off that list, they still remain on other U.S. terrorist lists. It will still be treated as such by the United States, as well as by international businesses. So, you know, for the Iranians, they’re not gaining much. The thing for the U.S. is that it will be a high political cost doing so in Washington. There will be protests from hawkish lawmakers in Congress, as well as some centrists, as well.

So, the issue here, at the end of this, is that they’re more or less done, but this one last thing could actually cause the whole thing to collapse. And if it does so, I think it really speaks to the mistake of the Biden administration to pursue a negotiated return to the JCPOA, which has now taken more than a year, rather than just going back into the deal through an executive order in the first week or first days of Biden taking office back in 2021.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it so — why is it so important, this Iran nuclear deal? I mean, even some Israeli officials — you know, Israel was famously so opposed to this deal — said they made a mistake.

TRITA PARSI: Well, this deal, back in 2015, ensured not only that the Iranians had no pathway to a nuclear weapon, but also that there would not be a military confrontation between the United States and Iran. I think right now there has — a belief has been created that if this deal is not struck, well, we’ll just continue to be in the same situation as we are in today, mindful of the fact that the deal currently is not fully in place. But that is a fallacy. The current status quo cannot survive a collapse of these negotiations. The only reason why we don’t have an escalation right now is precisely because of the fact that there is still some hope that the deal can be secured. If it isn’t, we’re going to see escalation from both sides. And though I don’t believe either of them actually want a war, there’s nothing to say that this escalation that will follow the collapse of the deal will not bring about some form of a military confrontation in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita, how has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impacted the peace deal negotiations, the nuclear deal negotiations?

TRITA PARSI: Well, first of all, the Russians made a request about two or three weeks ago in which they wanted all sanctions that Russia would be affected by to be lifted. And that was a demand that was rejected by the United States. The only thing the U.S. and the others agreed to is that whatever activities the Russians would have as part of the JCPOA would not be sanctioned by the United States and the West, but it has to be part of the JCPOA. That issue caused a delay of a roughly a week or so, and it was ultimately resolved. Right now the biggest problem is, I think, that mindful of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s aggression there, the political cost yet again has risen for the Biden administration to strike this deal, because Republicans are making the accusations that this is a deal that is dependent on Putin. It certainly is not. The Russians have a role in it, but this is ultimately a negotiation between the United States and Iran themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these fears you have of war on the horizon? Why? And also, while Republicans are opposed to the deal, what about this group of Democrats who are opposing the deal, and how significant is this? Also, very interesting in this week, when Obama for the first time returned to the White House — in that case, he was celebrating Obamacare, but it was this week.

TRITA PARSI: Well, first of all, regarding the Democrats who have come out in opposition, I think it’s very important to keep in mind they’re tremendously small numbers. At first, they were going to have 15 people at a press conference. Only five of them showed up. It shows that, mindful of the support that does exist in the country amongst the public for a renewal of the JCPOA, losing five or 15 members of the Democratic Party, while not good, they’re still a very, very significant minority. I think it’s been a bit overstated in the media. The headlines give the impression that this is a deal that splits the Democrats. It certainly does not.

But in regards to the escalatory risk, if there isn’t deal, the Iranians are going to continue to enrich at 60% levels. They may even escalate further. They will further expand their nuclear program. And pressure on the United States will increase to take action. And reality is that, by and large, the United States has run out of sanctions to impose on Iran.

One of the things the United States may do is that it may start targeting Iranian oil tankers on the high seas. The Iranians have roughly 25 million barrels of oil just sitting on tankers. They cannot really sell them, so they’re storaging them there. The United States may take those tankers, confiscate them, sell the oil, keep the money. The United States has already done this twice so far.

If that starts happening on a larger scale, there’s a significant risk that the Iranians will start retaliating militarily in Iraq against U.S. troops, for instance. That would be one possible outcome. If that happens, the United States has already made it clear that any such attack on U.S. troops will be treated as a declaration of war. That is just one out of many ways in which the two sides escalating in an effort to put pressure on each other can completely lose control of the situation and find themselves in a military confrontation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Biden has the political will to push forward with this, that he has been different than Trump on the Iran nuclear deal?

TRITA PARSI: In the sense of push forward of striking a deal or going to war?

AMY GOODMAN: Striking a deal.

TRITA PARSI: I think the Biden administration wants to get a deal. I do believe that the political will in the White House has not been anywhere near as strong as it was during Obama’s term. In fact, Biden has not treated this as a priority. This is actually part of the reason why the Biden administration did not go back into the deal during his first days in office through executive order, out of a fear that the political cost would be too high.

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

TRITA PARSI: Now, a year later, we see that that strategy backfired, because the political cost is even higher today.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, I want to thank you for being with us, with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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