Defense & National Security — Iran deal prospects dim

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President Biden’s lead negotiator on nuclear talks with Iran has given a dim outlook for prospects of a return to the deal, telling a Senate panel it was “tenuous at best” despite nearly a year of talks to revive the agreement.

We’ll break down the Biden administration’s consensus plus the latest on the Ukraine-Russia war and newly announced military drills from China.

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Biden’s Iran envoy: Return to nuclear deal ‘tenuous’

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Rob Malley — Biden’s lead negotiator on nuclear talks with Tehran — on Wednesday told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. would continue to reject Iranian demands that go beyond the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

He also said the U.S. is “fully prepared to live with and confront that reality” of moving forward without a return to the deal, and said that Biden has “taken no action off the table,” in a veiled reference to possible military action, in coordination with Israel, to take out Iran’s nuclear program.

No illusions: Malley said the administration is under no “illusion” that Iran’s government would not be a threat even with a return to the deal vacated by the Trump administration. But he said the Biden government does see the deal as imposing real constraints on Iran’s activities, and that without it Iran is more likely to become a nuclear power.

“Without those constraints, Iran has been accumulating sufficient enriched uranium and made sufficient technological advances to leave the breakout time is short as a matter of weeks, which means Iran could potentially produce enough fuel for bomb before we can know it, let alone stop it,” Malley said.

A continued threat: Malley said that Iran remains a threat to the U.S. and allies, in particular Israel, acknowledging criticisms from lawmakers opposed to the JCPOA that the agreement does not address Tehran’s support for terrorism, ballistic weapons program, attacks on American forces in the region, detaining American and dual-nationals for political purposes and human rights atrocities at home.

New sanctions: Malley also announced new sanctions will be imposed on an “international smuggling and money-laundering network” that he said provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC), which the former Trump administration designated as a terrorist organization and that President Biden has reportedly decided to maintain despite requests from Iran to lift the designation.

“As we have throughout the negotiations, we will continue to strongly push back” on Iran’s threatening behavior, Malley said in announcing the sanctions.

Read the full story here

Zelensky: ‘Situation in Donbas is extremely difficult’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday said the status of the Donbas region of the country is “extremely difficult” after months of Russian attacks in the area.

In a speech marking three months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Zelensky said “all the strength” of the Russian army has been concentrated on the region with the goal to “destroy everything there.”

Ongoing fighting: Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, part of the Donbas, since 2014. United Kingdom intelligence reported earlier on Tuesday that the Russian military is specifically trying to encircle three cities in and around Luhansk, but they are facing stiff Ukrainian resistance.

Russia has turned its attention toward the Donbas region as the full-scale invasion in Ukraine lingered longer than Russian President Vladimir Putin originally planned and Russian forces failed to capture cities in western Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv.

More pleas for weapons: Zelensky said he is grateful to Ukraine’s allies for the assistance they have provided, but the longer the war goes on, the greater the costs will be to Ukraine and the rest of the world. He said other countries sending weapons to Ukraine is the “best investment” in keeping stability throughout the world.

He added that Ukrainian leaders are working to ensure it receives “security guarantees” for after the war.

Read more here.

ZELENSKY: UKRAINE WILL FIGHT UNTIL IT REGAINS ALL ITS TERRITORIES 

Zelensky also said during the World Economic Forum on Wednesday that Ukraine would fight until it regained all of its territories — comments that come after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked that Ukraine’s borders should remain as they were prior to the start of the Russian invasion.

“When Ukraine says that it will fight until it regains all its territories, it means only one thing: that Ukraine will fight until it regains all its territories. This is about independence and sovereignty,” Zelensky said.

The Ukrainian president’s comments came after Kissinger, who spoke at the World Economic Forum on Monday, suggested a different outcome: That Ukraine potentially cede territory to Russia. Moscow seized Crimea in 2014 and forces have battled over the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Kissinger’s earlier remarks: “In my view, movement towards negotiations and negotiations on peace need to begin in the next two months so that the outcome of the war should be outlined. But before it could create upheaval and tensions that will be ever-harder to overcome, particularly between the eventual relationship of Russia, Georgia and of Ukraine towards Europe. Ideally, the dividing line should return the status quo ante,” Kissinger said in reference to Ukraine’s borders.

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China announces war games near Taiwan

China announced on Wednesday that it conducted military drills near Taiwan amid President Biden’s comments that the U.S. would defend the island if Beijing invaded.

Col. Shi Yi, a spokesperson for the Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army, said in a statement that the drills were a “solemn warning to the recent US-Taiwan collusion activities.”

The statement didn’t specify exactly where the drills were held, but it did say that the command performed “multi-service joint combat readiness patrols” and “actual combat drills” in the sea and airspace around Taiwan.

Why it matters: The drill underscores the fallout of Biden’s comments from Monday, when he answered “yes” when asked whether he was willing to get the U.S. involved militarily to defend Taiwan if China were to attempt to take it by force.

The White House quickly walked back Biden’s comments, saying that he wasn’t announcing a policy change.

Increasing instances: China has stepped up its provocations toward Taiwan, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked concerns that Beijing might soon launch an incursion against Taiwan.

China and Russia flew nuclear-capable bombers in a joint military exercise as the president wrapped up his trip to Asia.

Read more here

ON TAP TOMORROW

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken will deliver an address outlining the administration’s China policy at an Asia Society hosted event at George Washington University.

  • A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Ninth Summit of the Americas at 9 a.m.

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing to consider the nomination of Gen. Christopher Cavoli to be head of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, at 9:30 a.m.

  • The Middle East Institute will host a discussion on “The War in Ukraine and Its Impact on Russia-Iran Relations,” at 10 a.m.

  • A Senate Appropriations subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Fiscal Year 2023 Funding Request and Budget Justification for the Navy and Marine Corps,” with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, at 10 a.m.

  • The Government Executive Media Group and Defense One will host an event on cloud computing trends in defense at 11:30 a.m.

  • A House Appropriations subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Defense Environmental Restoration,” at 12 p.m.

  • The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on “The State of the Transportation Security Administration,” at 2:30 p.m.

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!

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