Iran nuclear deal is unrelated to IRGC terrorist designation, top US official says

Derek Chollet speaks to 'The National' about the need to prepare for a long war in Ukraine and regional developments

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The lifting of the foreign terrorist designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a matter unrelated to the Iran nuclear deal, a senior US State Department official has said.

Speaking exclusively to The National, State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet said that a “clear offer” has been made to the Iranians “after weeks of painstaking negotiations”. He added that “the ball is in Iran's court right now”.

However, the Iranians have yet to respond to the offer, as they seek to expand the benefits reaped from a potential deal, including removing the IRGC from the US blacklist of foreign terrorist organisations, a listing dating back to 2019 under president Donald Trump.

The move was part of the previous administration's efforts to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran.

Responding to a question about the terrorist designation of the IRGC, Mr Chollet said “it's unrelated to the nuclear issue … so we see that as a separate issue. And we have made that very clear”.

The US is not engaging directly with the Iranians in the negotiations being held in Vienna, and has been eager to get a deal concluded. However, Mr Chollet noted that his country would be willing to walk away if necessary. “Our bottom line remains the same, which is Iran cannot be allowed to have the capability to have a nuclear weapon,” he said.

He went on to tell The National: “We have what we believe is a good way forward in terms of the return of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] … but Iran has not yet responded to that.”

Mr Chollet is a State Department veteran who previously served as US assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015 in the Obama administration.

He advises Secretary of State Antony Blinken on key foreign policy issues, including the Iran nuclear deal.

Talks to restore the 2015 JCPOA, which the US abandoned four years ago under former president Trump, have taken place intermittently over the last several months but now appear stalled.

Mr Chollet spoke at length about the war in Ukraine, stating that Russia has fallen short in the strategic goals it set for the invasion, leaving President Vladimir Putin isolated on the world stage as his country's economy buckles under the weight of western sanctions. He said that many of Mr Putin's original war goals had objectively failed after 10 weeks of conflict.

“In some ways, Russia has already lost the original aims of the war. Putin very clearly wanted to occupy Kyiv, to take over Kyiv, to remove the Zelenskyy government from power and to subjugate Ukraine,” Mr Chollet explained late on Tuesday. “He has failed in that effort.”

Pointing to successive rounds of sanctions imposed by western powers against Russian businesses and oligarchs, Mr Chollet described Moscow as having suffered a strategic failure “because their economy is cratering (and) their military is under great stress”.

“We've seen hundreds and hundreds of major businesses flee Russia and Putin is more isolated in the world than ever before,” Mr Chollet said.

The US has already rushed $3.8 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the February 24 invasion, with much more coming. Western military aid including US anti-tank Javelin missiles has been crucial in bolstering the Ukrainian military.

President Joe Biden on Monday signed a law that will expedite the process of resupplying the Ukrainians with weapons. The move comes as the US Congress prepares to unleash resources of at least $33 billion to help Ukraine.

Mr Chollet said ordinary Russians are suffering the consequences of Mr Putin's “war of choice” in Ukraine, “which is something we very much regret”.

Mr Chollet, who started his career in Washington in the early 1990s under then-secretary of state James Baker, has said the fact Russia has had to refocus its military priorities on the Donbas region shows Moscow has narrowed its objectives.

Mr Putin may also end up strengthening the Nato alliance that he has said threatens Russian security in Eastern Europe, Mr Chollet noted.

He pointed to Finland and Sweden, which have both said they may seek to join the transatlantic alliance.

“The mere fact that we are talking about the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining the Nato alliance, which I can guarantee was not something any of us were thinking about at the beginning of this year, that shows right then and right there how Putin's war is backfiring on him,” he said.

Nato would welcome the two countries “with open arms” Mr Chollet said, stressing his country's support for such a move.

He also sees the “strategic decoupling” of western energy markets from Russia as a “strategic game changer”, but warned “we should expect that this war will unfortunately drag on”. He went on to say “there's no sign as of yet that Vladimir Putin is willing at all to reassess his own maximalist objectives”.

“We need to brace ourselves for what is going to be a long fight, potentially.”

Returning to the region, Mr Chollet spoke about the importance of relations with partners in the Middle East and North Africa.

And while Mr Biden has yet to visit the region since he took office, Mr Chollet noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had made travel more difficult. He went on to say “our engagement with our partners throughout the Middle East is something that's a high priority for President Biden and for Secretary Blinken”.

On Lebanon, Mr Chollet said his country was willing to work with a future government but stressed the importance of the elections being “free and peaceful”. He added: “That's critical in any election anywhere, but particularly right now and in Lebanon, a country that seems so much instability over so many years.”

He said the US was “hoping that the election is free and fair and stable and moves forward as planned, then we'll look forward to working with the duly-elected government, but I want to let the people of Lebanon speak.”

Updated: May 11, 2022, 1:17 PM
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