Not even a plot to assassinate former top U.S. officials on American soil will derail the Biden administration’s push for a renewed nuclear deal with Iran.
The State Department on Thursday stood behind the effort to strike a new pact with Tehran to limit the country’s nuclear weapons program, with a top diplomatic spokesperson telling reporters that Washington is prepared to “immediately” implement an agreement if Iran drops several of its demands.
“This administration has been clear that it will ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon and we believe the best path to achieving that goal is through diplomacy,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Thursday. “And as long as we believe pursuing a [new nuclear deal] that is in U.S. national security interests, we’re going to continue to do so.”
The comments came just 24 hours after the Justice Department charged a member of Iran‘s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with plotting to kill former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, an outspoken Iran hawk who has long been a thorn in the side of the Islamic republic. The assassination plot also reportedly targeted Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state under President Trump.
The move underscores the remarkable resilience of the 2015 Iran deal, which many gave up for dead when Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the multinational pact in 2018. Mr. Biden says the push for a revived agreement reflects the overwhelming need to prevent Tehran from getting the bomb, while critics say it is a case of diplomacy pushing blindly ahead even though the regional and global strategic landscape has fundamentally shifted.
Not only is the alleged Bolton plot just the latest strain on U.S.-Iranian relations, but Russia and China also are both signatories to the deal despite their own tattered relations with the U.S. and its allies.
SEE ALSO: Iran dismisses U.S. charges of plot to murder John Bolton as ‘baseless’
The assassination plot comes at what European diplomats say is a make-or-break moment for a new nuclear deal, with both Washington and Tehran now poring over a final text after more than a year and a half of halting, frustrating talks since Mr. Biden took office.
Iran says it remains committed to negotiating a new deal, but it has repeatedly sought new provisions and guarantees in a revised agreement that have left European diplomats despairing at times over ever nailing down a final agreement.
Federal prosecutors this week charged 45-year-old Shahram Poursafi, aka Mehdi Rezayi, of Tehran with offering to pay up to $300,000 to kill Mr. Bolton as payback for a January 2020 U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Mr. Bolton was serving as national security adviser at the time of the strike, which brought America and Iran to the brink of war.
The stunning revelations sparked speculation that perhaps the administration would rethink its diplomatic engagement with Tehran. Instead, President Biden and his team seem determined to forge ahead as nuclear negotiations between the U.S., Europe, Russia, China and Iran near the finish line.
But critics — including many of Mr. Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress — say the White House is making a grave error, especially if any new agreement lifts some economic sanctions on an IRGC that prosecutors say is now directly linked to assassination plots targeting Americans.
“It makes zero sense for Washington to be negotiating with the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism as it continues to plot to kill American citizens on U.S soil. Any deal that would remove pressure against the IRGC, the long arm of the Islamic Republic’s terror apparatus, would be a self-inflicted wound,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks Iran’s record on terrorism and the ongoing multilateral nuclear talks.
“If the latest developments don’t shake the U.S. policy of maximum deference toward Tehran, I’m not sure what will,” he said. “The desire to continue negotiations at all costs is a political calculation by Biden, one driven by the mistaken philosophy that pressure hurts rather than helps coercive diplomacy.”
Mr. Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special Iran envoy Robert Malley have faced withering criticism from Republicans and others who insist that any deal with Tehran must address the country’s support for terrorism. But like former President Obama before them, Mr. Biden and his team appear dead set on keeping such issues out of the talks and focusing solely on preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and potentially sparking an arms race in the region.
Under Mr. Obama, the U.S. in 2015 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, lifting economic sanctions on the Islamic republic in exchange for unprecedented limits on Tehran’s nuclear program. China, France, Germany, Britain and Russia helped negotiate the deal and signed on to it.
Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018, citing in part the fact that it did not address Iran’s financial backing of terrorist groups in the Middle East, its links to militias that targeted American soldiers in neighboring Iraq, and other malign behavior in the region.
Reviving the JCPOA has been one of the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priorities. And it appears that this week’s revelations from the Justice Department won’t change that.
“We and the Europeans have made quite clear that we are prepared to immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna for a mutual return to the full implementation of the JCPOA,” the State Department’s Mr. Patel said Thursday. “But for that to happen,” he added, “Iran needs to decide to drop their additional demands that go beyond the JCPOA. Ultimately, the choice is theirs.”
In separate comments Thursday, Mr. Blinken directly condemned the alleged plot against Mr. Bolton.
“Our message to Iran is clear: We will not tolerate threats of violence against Americans — and that certainly includes former government officials. Any attack would be met with severe consequences,” he said in a Twitter post.
Iran, meanwhile, dismissed the charges against Mr. Poursafi.
“The spinning of these threadbare and baseless myths is becoming a recurring custom in the American judicial and propaganda system,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said, adding that the Justice Department had “raised accusations without providing valid evidence and necessary documentation.”
“This time, the process has been advanced by creating scenarios involving politically bankrupt and worthless individuals like Bolton,” he added, according to an account by the state-controlled Tasnim news agency.
Mr. Bolton called the plot “an act of war” against the U.S. He told Fox News on Thursday that the FBI warned him in the spring of 2020 about threats against his life.
“The aim here is to kill Americans on American soil and its former government officials,” he said. “This is a broad threat to private American citizens on American soil, and I think it is essentially unprecedented.”
Despite Iran’s denials, U.S. officials say there is ample evidence that the plot was real and that Mr. Poursafi had worked to find out information on Mr. Bolton’s whereabouts and how to hire someone to carry out the assassination.
“This was not an idle threat,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in a statement Wednesday. “And this is not the first time we’ve uncovered brazen acts by Iran to exact revenge against individuals in the U.S.”
Before the Justice Department charges, nuclear talks in Vienna between the U.S., Europe, China, Russia and Iran produced a “final text” this week, according to European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. But Mr. Borrell said key hurdles still must be cleared, including Iran’s objection to an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into undeclared nuclear material in the country.
— Tom Howell Jr. and David R. Sands contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.