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Politics, not substance, seen guiding US and Iran on terror listing

One of the last obstacles to reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – Tehran’s demand to remove its Revolutionary Guards from a US terrorism list – is more an issue of politics than substance, analysts said.

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While the two sides had appeared close to reviving the pact a month ago, talks have since stalled over last-minute Russian demands, the Nowruz holiday, and the unresolved issue of whether Washington might remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.

The United States and Iran have been engaged it fitful, indirect talks for more than a year on reviving the 2015 deal under which Iran limited its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions.

The United States has weighed dropping the designation in return for some kind of action or commitment from Iran to rein in IRGC activities, one source has said.

However, the White House is well aware of “the political sensitivity and price associated with” removing the elite force from the list, said Dennis Ross, a long-time US Middle East negotiator, noting that some Democrats oppose dropping it.

“There is hesitancy on the part of the political side of the White House,” he added.

A senior administration official said US President Joe Biden did not intend to drop the terrorism designation, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on Friday.

Asked about that report, a senior Biden administration official said, “We are not going to negotiate in public. There are still gaps.”

“The onus here is really on Iran at this stage, particularly on this issue,” the official added on condition of anonymity.

Little economic impact

When the Trump administration designated the IRGC as an FTO in 2019, it was the first time Washington had so blacklisted part of another country’s military and was seen by some as a poison pill to make it harder to revive the nuclear deal, which then-President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

Critics of dropping the IRGC from the list, as well as those open to the idea, say doing so will have little economic effect because other US sanctions force foreign actors to shun the group.

“It’s the administration-wide assessment that it would not have a significant – if any – impact,” said a senior US official on condition of anonymity.

This is in part because the IRGC would remain sanctioned as a “specially designated global terrorist” (SDGT) on a separate US blacklist list created after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The IRGC, a powerful political faction in Iran, controls a business empire as well as elite armed and intelligence forces that Washington accuses of a global terrorist campaign.

Iranian sources cited multiple reasons why they want the designation removed, including domestic politics and the desire of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s team to show it can secure a better deal than his predecessor Hassan Rouhani.

“Mostly it is a matter of dignity for the establishment and Iran’s negotiators,” said a senior Iranian diplomat on condition of anonymity.

“The new team from the beginning insisted on the FTO issue and sees it as a major achievement if those sanctions are lifted. That is mainly for domestic use because they criticized Rouhani’s 2015 deal and cannot just revive it,” added a former senior Iranian official briefed on the talks.

Another Iranian diplomat said Iran had rejected the idea of removing the designation from the IRGC as a whole but keeping it on the group’s elite Quds Force.

Soft on terrorism?

While US officials are loathe to admit it, the main issue in Washington is also political. Republicans argue dropping the FTO label would show the Biden administration is soft on terrorism, a charge US officials deny.

Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, last week called the IRGC “a killing machine” that threatens Americans and he stressed the political cost to the White House.

“That’s going to split the Democratic party in half on this, if not more,” he said.

Some Democrats have voiced misgivings, although there is little chance Congress could block a revived nuclear deal.

“We can’t gamble with American lives and remove the … FTO designation,” US Representative Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, said last week.

Even critics admit removal would have few practical effects.

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank said labeling the IRGC as an FTO added only two authorities: allowing the US government to bar entry by anyone associated with it and to impose criminal penalties to those who knowingly provided it “material support.”

In a recent analysis, Levitt said Iran would use a removal to argue that it does not engage in terrorism, and that dropping the label would undermine the credibility of US sanctions.

“The IRGC should not be removed from the FTO list until there is evidence it has ceased terrorist activities,” he wrote.

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Taliban hold gathering of 3,000 Islamic clerics, seek advise on running Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering Thursday of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August, urging those at the meeting to advise them on running the country.

Women were not allowed to attend.

At one point, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue.

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Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”

The Taliban, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country, touted the gathering in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.

But all those who addressed the assembly – and, it appeared, the overwhelming majority of attendees – were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics.

Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested that the reopening of the girls’ schools would be discussed.

The Taliban’s supreme leader earlier this year banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.

“The girls’ (school girls) issue is a challenge and needs to be solved by the government, and the government has the responsibility to listen to the people’s demand,” Mujahid said.

The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban government, demanding it be more inclusive and respect women’s rights.

However, the conference seemed less a nod to that pressure than an attempt by the Taliban to bolster their legitimacy as rulers, at a time when the former insurgents are struggling to deal with Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe and are cut off from international financing.

A powerful earthquake earlier this month that killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan only further underscored the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation.

The gathering was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University.

A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers.

However, the Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga, instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.

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Germany looks to buy Israeli or US missile defense system

Berlin is considering buying a missile defense system from Israel or the United States to defend against threats including Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, German weekly Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday.

The Iskander missiles can reach almost all of western Europe and there is no missile shield in place to protect against this threat, Germany’s chief of defense Eberhard Zorn told Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on Saturday.

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“The Israelis and the Americans possess such systems. Which one do we prefer? Will we manage to establish an overall (missile defense) system in NATO? These are the questions we need to answer now,” Zorn said.

He did not specify the names of the systems but was most likely referring to Arrow 3 built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the US system THAAD produced by Lockheed Martin.

Russia said in 2018 it had deployed Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave, a slice of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania. A mobile ballistic missile system, the Iskander replaced the Soviet Scud missile and its two guided missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

In a landmark speech days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would hike its defense spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output by injecting 100 billion euros ($110 billion) into the military.

Zorn belongs to a group of high-ranking officials consulting with Scholz on how to spend this money.

“So far, only one thing is clear: We have neither the time nor the money to develop these (missile defense) systems on our own because the missile threat is known to already be there,” Zorn said.

Referring to Germany’s lack of a short-range missile defense, which can be used to protect troops on the move or under threat while deployed, he said Berlin had started looking into the purchase of such systems and it now had to make a decision.

Beyond this, the Bundeswehr will have to invest 20 billion euros by 2032 to replenish its ammunition storages, Zorn added.

Read more: Iran tensions, record gas prices push Biden to recalibrate US policy in Middle East

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Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to block Sweden, Finland NATO deal if expectations not met

Just two days after agreeing to lift deal-breaking objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, Turkey’s leader threatened Thursday that Ankara could still block the process if the two countries fail to fully meet his expectations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the close of the alliance’s summit in Madrid that Tuesday night’s 10-article agreement with the Nordic pair was a victory for Ankara that addressed all its “sensitivities.”

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He especially stressed Turkey’s demand that Sweden and Finland extradite terror suspects with links to outlawed Kurdish groups or the network of an exiled cleric accused of a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.

But Erdogan added that if the two Nordic states renege on their promises, Turkey’s Parliament could still not ratify the deal. NATO accession must be formally approved by all 30 member states, which gives each a blocking right.

“This business will not work if we don’t pass this in our parliament,” Erdogan said. “First Sweden and Finland must fulfill their duties and those are already in the text … But if they don’t fulfill these, then of course there is no way we would send it to our parliament.”

Erdogan claimed that Sweden had promised to extradite 73 “terrorists” to Turkey and crack down on the financing and recruitment activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — listed as a terrorist group by the US and the European Union — and linked groups.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the PKK.

The text of the memorandum sets no specific number on extraditions. It says the Nordic countries will address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided” by Turkey in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

On Wednesday, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sweden and Finland’s justice ministries have files from Turkey on 33 people with alleged links to PKK and the network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Journalists at Thursday’s news conference repeatedly pressed Erdogan about the extraditions and whether Sweden had actually promised the number he quoted.

“Of course what we understand is important from our meetings and talks,” Erdogan said. “Sweden promised to give us these 73 people with this text. They may or they may not, we will follow that through the text and we will make our decision.”

Erdogan also said the number of extraditions had been 60 but was updated to 73. There was no immediate response to requests for comments from the Swedish delegation at the summit in Madrid.

The Swedish government has sought to allay concerns that the deal would lead to extraditions to Turkey without due process.

“I know there are some people who are worried that we’re going to start to hunt people and extradite them and I think it’s important to say that we always follow Swedish laws and international conventions, and we never extradite Swedish citizens,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told public broadcaster SVT on Wednesday.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto stressed that Helsinki pointed out that the memorandum does not list the names of individuals.

“In the case of extraditions, we will adhere to our own legislation and international agreements. Ultimately, extradition is a legal discretion which politicians have no right to influence,” Niinisto said.

With the joint memorandum signed, NATO moved ahead with inviting the Nordic countries to the military alliance that seeks to enlarge and strengthen in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The most time consuming part of gaining NATO membership is the ratification of the applicants’ accession protocols by the alliance’s 30 member countries. It’s a process that involves national parliaments — and could take months.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that Germany will launch the process of ratifying the planned NATO membership of Sweden and Finland this week and will conclude it “very quickly.”

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