Biden ramps up pressure on Iran as it grapples with protests

The Biden administration wants to ramp up pressure on Iran amid stalled talks to rejoin the nuclear deal, but internal calculations in Tehran are difficult to predict as the nation faces rising unrest at home.

The options on the table for the U.S., which are said to include tighter restrictions on Iran’s oil exports as well as new sanctions on its missile and drone programs, are likely to further strain tensions amid the months-long efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the Obama-era nuclear deal that the U.S. exited in 2018 under then-President Trump.

The U.S. has warned that negotiations cannot continue indefinitely and called out Iran for failing to agree to a seventh round of indirect talks in Vienna, more than one month after the last round concluded.

Meanwhile, growing protests in Iran over water and electricity shortages are drawing scrutiny from the international community. At least nine people, including a teenager, have been killed during the protests, according to Human Rights Watch. Nearly 200 arrests have taken place.

Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Iranian leaders are likely engaged in a significant debate over whether to rejoin the JCPOA for immediate sanctions relief because of domestic turmoil, or continue nuclear provocations to attempt to exact concessions from the West.

Iran has in recent months ramped up its nuclear activity far beyond the constraints of the deal, increasing its stockpile of nuclear material and infrastructure key to building a bomb. Even if Iran disposed of excess materials that can be used to build a bomb, it has gained key operational knowledge that is irreversible.

“If you’re sitting in Tehran you have a choice at this moment … do you look at the circumstances right now and look at the negotiations in Vienna, and say, ‘we’ve made progress on these talks, the imperative of sanctions relief is very much there, and let’s get these negotiations over and done with?’ ” he asked.

“The risk is also that Iranians will look at increasing brinkmanship right now … that they still have room for their own form of leverage, which is further nuclear escalation, and that they can continue to spin up more nuclear provocations but there is only so much more the U.S. can do on the sanctions front,” he added.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in an interview with Sky News Arabia Thursday in Kuwait, put the blame squarely on Tehran for failing to come back to the table, saying the U.S. is monitoring the protests.

“We believe that it’s in our interest and Iran’s interest to come back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA. But that really depends on Iran making the decision to do so. It’s not yet made that decision,” he said.  

“Meanwhile, of course, we’ve seen protests in Iran that started outside of Tehran; they’ve now come to Tehran,” Blinken added, describing them as “people’s deep frustration with the failure of the government to meet their basic needs.”

“And, of course, we stand with the people of Iran in the desire to have their voices heard, and we urge — strongly urge the government not to use violence and repression to silence those voices,” he said.

The protests began July 15 in Iran’s southwest Khuzestan province, with demonstrators taking to the streets blaming government mismanagement for water shortages. The demonstrations have evolved into mass frustration across the country and against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Videos of the protesters posted on social media include chants of “Death to the dictator,” “Shame on Khamenei, let go of the country” and slogans criticizing Iran’s support of proxy fighting forces across the region, according to reports by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

It’s unclear if the protests are having an effect on calculations by the Iranian regime on potentially returning to the negotiations with the U.S. and other JCPOA participants, including France, Germany, the U.K., Russia, China and the European Union.

Dennis Ross, who served as special assistant to former President Obama and is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on Twitter that he expects the protests will pressure the Iranian regime to return to the JCPOA later this year.

“Protestors chanting ‘I am thirsty’ is a basic sign of failure. Sanctions relief is an increasing need; expect Iran to return to the JCPOA by Fall,” he tweeted.

The Biden administration has said it is prepared to lift sanctions that are inconsistent with the original terms of the nuclear deal, likely to give a key influx of cash to leaders in Tehran under pressure from the public.

But it has also called for Iran to commit to follow-up negotiations to address its ballistic weapons program and support for proxy-fighting forces across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and in the Gaza Strip.

Washington appears to be preparing a parallel pressure campaign, with a senior official telling The Wall Street Journal that the administration is considering sanctions that impact Iran’s ability to build drones and precision-guided missiles.

This comes on top of the administration weighing sanctions targeting Chinese imports of Iranian crude oil, also reported by the Journal.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative with the Brookings Institution, said that it’s likely the U.S. and Iran resume negotiations after the inauguration of President-elect Ibrahim Raisi, set for Aug. 5, but that they face significant differences.

“There will be a resumption of talks but it’s not at all clear that negotiations will go smoothly,” he said. “Raisi has made very clear, and most Iranians have made very clear, that even if the JCPOA is restored, they have no interest in follow-on negotiations.”

Khamenei, in reported remarks Wednesday, ramped up criticism against the “West,” calling them the “enemies” and condemning the U.S. demand for follow-up negotiations as a pretext to walk away from the JCPOA.

“By putting this sentence, they want to provide an excuse for their further interventions on the principle of [the deal] and missile program and regional issues,” Khamenei said, according to The Associated Press. “If Iran refuses to discuss them, they will say that you have violated the agreement and the agreement is over.”

Updated 7:55 p.m.

Tags Antony Blinken Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Dennis Ross Donald Trump Foreign relations of Iran Iran Iran nuclear deal Iran nuclear talks JCPOA Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Nuclear energy in Iran Nuclear program of Iran radio free europe/radio liberty Twitter Wall Street Journal
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