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The Takeaway: US says Iran deal still possible; breakout time is ‘few weeks’

Islamic State steps up attacks during Ramadan; Arab-Israelis call for calm at Al Aqsa; Russian oligarchs and Egypt; Egyptian Christians alarmed by killing of priest; water scarcity threatens Jordan’s oryx; the storyteller from Idlib; and more;  in less than 1200 words.
Blinken

Leading the news: Biden administration backs off deadline for Iran deal return 

Deadlines slip for ‘complex questions’: 

  • Six months ago, US officials were warning that the negotiations in Vienna “cannot go on indefinitely." 

  • But on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States will seek “a mutual return as long as it remains in our interest,” adding that “complex questions” remain unsolved.  

  • Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that an Iranian nuclear weapons breakout is “down from about a year — which is what we knew it was during the deal — to just a few weeks or less.” 

Iran ‘knows what it would have to do’ re: IRGC 

  • Among the "complex questions" is a dead end on the fate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ designation as a foreign terrorist organization. Tehran made its removal from the terror blacklist a condition of its return to compliance, but reportedly rejected a US condition that it agree not to target American officials implicated in the killing of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.   

  • During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was pressed on whether the US plans to delist the IRGC or find some compromise, such as leaving its elite Quds Force on the State Department list.  

  • Blinken told the panel, “The only way I can see it being lifted is if Iran takes steps necessary to justify the lifting of that designation. It knows what it would have to do in order to see that happen." He added that a wide array of sanctions will “remain on the books no matter what happens.”  

US, Israel discuss Plan B  

  • Blinken’s carefully chosen words came as an Israeli delegation led by national security advisor Eyal Hulata visited Washington for meetings focused on Iran. The strategic talks followed an April 24 phone call between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, during which the two leaders discussed the IRGC’s terror listing.  

  • An official familiar with this week’s US-Israeli talks said they were “productive.” The official told Al-Monitor that “different scenarios were discussed,” including in the event a nuclear deal is not reached.  

  • As US and Israeli officials met in Washington, Israeli media reports claimed the Biden administration was close to calling it quits on the Iran talks. Price on Tuesday pushed back on the reports that cited anonymous Israeli officials, which he described as “a recipe for information that may not be entirely accurate.” 

Mixed signals from Iran… 

  • “The Biden administration should have the audacity to rectify the White House’s past mistakes,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on April 23, according to Iran’s Press TV. “There is no doubt about the Iranian government’s will to reach a good, strong, and sustainable agreement. …The White House should end its excessive demands and its indecision and walk down the path of realism and resolution.” 

  • Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Al-Monitor that Iran “appears to be convinced that Biden isn’t serious about a return to the JCPOA” and may not respond to the latest US proposal.  

From our regional correspondents: 
 
1. Islamic State steps up Ramadan revenge attacks  

The Islamic State has claimed a spate of attacks in Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Libya, and Uzbekistan following the start of a new campaign aimed at avenging the group’s former leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, and its former spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Quraishi
 
On April 18, IS claimed its first attack as part of its “Revenge for the Two Sheikhs” campaign in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor province, which is currently under control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Shelly Kittleson reports that many Arab residents refuse to share information about IS activities with the Kurdish-led SDF, which they view as discriminatory and unable to protect them. 

2. Arab-Israelis call for calm at Al-Aqsa  

The recent unrest at one of Jerusalem’s most holy sites has underscored its importance to the Arab world, writes Afif Abu Much. Israel says it’s “committed” to maintaining the status quo at the Al-Aqsa mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where many Palestinians object to Jewish prayer.  

Reda Jaber, director of the Aman Center against Violence in the Arab Community, told Al-Monitor, “There’s an underestimation among the Jewish community in Israel of the deep emotional and identificational importance of Al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims and Arabs in general."

3. Will Russian oligarchs seek haven in Egypt?  

Some Egyptian politicians want the government to open its doors to Russian oligarchs whose assets were frozen by the West. The Nidaa Masr party says incentives should be offered so that Russia’s sanctioned billionaires will invest in the North African county, particularly in tourism, industry and energy. 

“We are not siding with any party in the Ukrainian crisis,” party head Tareq Zeidan told Azza Guergues. “We are in an economic crisis, and the important thing now is to attract these investments.” Egypt, which relies heavily on Russia for its wheat needs and tourists, has avoided condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

4. Egypt’s Christians alarmed by priest stabbing 

The recent stabbing death of a priest in Alexandria has spread fear among the coastal city’s Christian community, our correspondent in Egypt reports. Witnesses say a bearded man stabbed Father Arsanios Wadeed in the neck on April 6 as he was leaving the beach. The attack has alarmed Egypt's Christian minority, which make up around 10% of the 102 million-strong population. It comes as the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate continues to drive Christians out of northern Sinai province.  

5. Jordan’s water scarcity threatening gazelles  

Water scarcity in Jordan is threatening the survival of the Arabian oryx, reports Melissa Pawson. The vulnerable white gazelles graze on plants in Jordan’s Shaumari reserve. But a decline in flooding frequency has left the oryxes struggling to find food in the semi-arid area. According to UNICEF, Jordan is the second most water-scarce country in the world. 

Multimedia this week: Ramadan storyteller, Nadav Zafrir, Sarah Leah Whitson 

  • Listen: Amberin Zaman interviews DAWN’s executive director Sarah Leah Whitson about Turkey’s recent U-turn on the Jamal Khashoggi case. You can listen to the podcast here

  • Watch: Mouneb Taim reports on a Syrian storyteller who spreads cheer among children living in Idlib province’s impoverished displacement camps. You can watch the video here

  • Watch: Dozens of people are still missing after a boat carrying 80 Lebanese and Syrian migrants sank off the coast of Lebanon on Saturday. Watch the video here