FILE - Iran's national flag flutters in the wind as the Milad telecommunications tower and buildings are seen in the background, Tehran, Iran, March 31, 2020.
FILE - Iran's national flag flutters in the wind as the Milad telecommunications tower and buildings are seen in the background, Tehran, Iran, March 31, 2020.

AMMAN, JORDAN - Negotiations continue on a U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal and on how to ensure its full and effective implementation. Observers say the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East cannot be ignored and must be tackled, even as Iran demands an end to crippling U.S. sanctions. Analysts also say that the wide-ranging activities of Iranian-backed Shiite militias and missiles in the region need to be addressed.  
           
Along with other observers, David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Trump administration Middle East advisor, says Iran is desperate for sanctions relief as it demands all punitive measures be lifted before it returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. But Schenker argues that the U.S. should leverage the current talks also to deal with Iran’s malign behavior and that of its proxies in the region.
 
“If enough sanctions are lifted, there’ll be insufficient leverage … to get the Iranians to discuss any of the other elephants in the room. That is the missiles and the Iranian backed Shiite militias that are running amok in the Middle East. From Iraq to Yemen to Syria to Lebanon, Iran seems to be pursuing its own maximum pressure campaign against the Biden administration in an effort to gain concessions at the negotiating table on the nuclear deal,” he said.
 
Schenker points to recent attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq, increasing drone attacks on Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Houthi rebels - despite the Biden administration’s delisting of the Houthis as a terror group - and Iranian fast boats harassing U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.   
 
However, Financial Times International Affairs editor David Gardner, in remarks made to Columbia University’s Global Center, said he sees a weakened Iran through crippling sanctions, failed regional adventures and the loss of its chief military strategist, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq last year. This is the case, he said, despite Iran’s sphere of influence in the so-called Shiite Crescent.  
 
“Iraq, Syria, Lebanon is not an arc or axis of power, but an arc of failed states which Iran increasingly struggles to manage post-Qassem Soleimani. It’s not possible to proceed purely on that hard power formula of militias and missiles. The need for sanctions relief is very, very pressing indeed," Gardner said.  
 
David Hearst, editor in chief of Middle East Eye, agrees.   

“The assassination of Soleimani has had really quite a devastating effect on the coordination of different groups. No one has been able to replace Soleimani who was a military general. He spoke Arabic. He built bridges not just with Kurds, but with Sunni Arab leaders. His sudden going has demonstrated the weakness of the structure," Hearst said.    

Still, London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies says recent satellite imagery shows the construction of a new set of seven silos storing advanced new missiles in southern Iran that could pose concern for military airbases in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  

Others point to Iran-linked Iraqi militias muscling in on a strategic region that connects Iraq and Syria following the Islamic State militants’ defeat.   
 

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