U.S. is working to ‘get Iran to deescalate on a variety of fronts,’ Leaf says

Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf told lawmakers that the JCPOA is ‘not actively on the table’ and that ‘there is a lot of misinformation and… disinformation’ in the media about engagement with Iran


Barbara Leaf, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, speaks to reporters at a media roundtable in Kuwait City on October 19, 2022.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that the U.S. is working on efforts to “get Iran to deescalate on a variety of fronts.”

Leaf’s comments to a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee came amid rumors and speculation about talks between the U.S. and Iran, potentially regarding an interim or limited-scope nuclear deal. Washington has repeatedly denied reports of an interim deal, but some observers have speculated the White House is seeking some form of diplomatic arrangement that could involve sanctions relief for the regime and sidestep congressional review.

“There is a lot of misinformation and a lot of disinformation churning around in the media ecosystem right now. We have been very clear that we’ll use diplomacy, indirect or direct, to get after the various threats that Iran poses internationally,” Leaf said. “The best way to constrain the [nuclear] program is to get it back into a diplomatic box with rigorous oversight and inspection regime and so on. JCPOA, for a variety of reasons, is really not actively on the table as it were. But we are trying to get to a place where we can get Iran to deescalate on a variety of fronts.”

Leaf added that the U.S. is delivering an “absolutely unvarnished message” to the regime that developing nuclear weapons would not be acceptable, and is encouraging U.S. partners to do the same. She noted that the U.S. maintains both diplomatic and non-diplomatic options for going after Iran, and is exercising economic pressure while seeking a diplomatic solution.

“The president has been clear that he’s committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. While diplomacy is the best means to address this issue, it must be coupled with deterring Iran’s adventurism,” Leaf said. “That effort is bolstered by building a deep coalition of partners with integrated defense capabilities and the willingness to hold Iran to account.”

Leaf also said that the U.S. has “responded forthrightly” when Iran and its proxies in Syria have attacked U.S. forces. 

The top Mideast diplomat indicated that there are narrowing prospects for renewing the United Nations sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone programs, which are set to expire in October. She said the issue is something the U.S. has discussed with its partners, but that action through the U.N. Security Council is “quite difficult” given Russia’s place on the body.

Leaf did not address the possibility — seen by experts as slim — that the U.S.’ European allies would invoke snapback mechanisms in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to prevent the expiration of the U.N. embargo.

“We have a host of other tools at our disposal, and we will use them,” Leaf said, highlighting extensive sanctions targeting Iran’s supply of drones to Russia. “That’s a two-way defense relationship that is growing. It is of enormous concern, not just to us, but our European partners. And so we’re very aligned in our efforts.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) pressed Leaf on whether the U.S. would withhold funding from the International Monetary Fund if the body continues to provide special drawing rights — supplemental reserves — to Iran. Sherman argued that the U.S. would otherwise undercut its own sanctions and indirectly help fund Iran’s nuclear program. Leaf said she would have to examine the issue and follow up.

Leaf called potential normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel “absolutely a priority for us” that would bring about broader normalization and “shift things very dynamically in the region.” “There is absolutely the will and determination… on the part of the administration to midwife this,” she continued.

However, Leaf said, there is “no defined road map at this point” and that “a lot of the discussions are nascent.” 

The Saudis, she said, have not yet developed “a defined picture of what they might put into the mix” regarding expectations for progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace as a condition of normalization, although she noted that “they have stipulated that there is a part in any normalization for the Palestinians.”

Addressing concerns about reported Saudi demands for U.S. assistance with the Saudi nuclear power program as part of a normalization deal — potentially including domestic enrichment of uranium — Leaf said that “Israel and the U.S. will have everything to say about the course of any of the aspects that go into the mix.” 

She declined to offer a specific commitment that the U.S. would not put forward an agreement that falls short of the “gold standard” set out in the U.S.’ nuclear development agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

“We will rigorously promote nuclear security and nonproliferation and we will consult with Congress,” she said, when pressed.

Leaf sought to downplay tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, deflecting criticism of Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s recent visit to the kingdom and public statements issued following that meeting offered by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who has been critical of Riyadh.

She said that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia “have worked to get back to the business at hand, which is in the interest of both our people, both of our country’s national security interests, diplomatic interests, economic interests,” following a spat last year over oil prices.

Leaf also addressed the United Arab Emirates’ decision to pull out of naval cooperation with U.S. forces in the region earlier this year. She explained that discussions on the subject are “continuing” and that the U.S. is also “giving a fresh look at… how we best use information intelligence and information sharing with a wide variety of coalition partners.”

Leaf praised the efforts of U.S. officials to deepen existing Abraham Accords partnerships in the cultural realm, and expressed an interest in expanding those efforts. “Frankly, I want to see more of that in the space of Egypt and Jordan, the original founders of peace,” she explained. She blamed “the legacy of years” for the difficulties in establishing a warmer peace between those nations and Israel.

She added that the U.S. is working to “engage the private sector” to generate funding for projects stemming from the Accords and the Negev Forum, as well as potentially offering seed funding through a new “opportunity fund” proposed in the administration’s 2024 budget.

Addressing issues in the Palestinian territories, Leaf said that efforts to eliminate pro-terrorism content in Palestinian textbooks remain “a work in progress and we’re committed to it.” She also acknowledged that Palestinian security forces are not “where they need to be” to “carry out all of their responsibilities.” 

Leaf told lawmakers that the U.S. remains opposed to normalization of relations with the Assad regime in Syria and committed to keeping U.S. sanctions in place. But, she argued, U.S. partners in the Arab League who are reestablishing ties maintain the same objectives as the U.S., but believe that efforts at regime change have failed.

“We are holding fast that we will not normalize,” Leaf said. “They are going to engage, but we want the same thing: a change in Damascus’ behavior.”

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