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Year after protests, Iran even more toxic for US

Amini's death triggered months of nationwide protests

By AFP - Sep 15,2023 - Last updated at Sep 15,2023

Amini’s death continues to inspire crowds (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — For the United States, dealing with Iran's clerical leaders has never been for the faint of heart. But a year after massive protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, Tehran has become even more toxic for Washington.

President Joe Biden's Republican critics have savaged him for agreeing, nearly on the anniversary of the uprising, to a deal that will unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue to bring home five Americans who had been imprisoned.

Officials and diplomats say the US administration sees little alternative to engagement, with new talks possible on Iran's contested nuclear programme, but few expect Biden to invest political capital to reach any substantive new agreement with the hostile state and arch-foe of Israel.

Biden himself, in remarks caught on camera at a campaign rally, said that the 2015 nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — clinched by Barack Obama, trashed by Donald Trump and which the Biden administration spent months negotiating to restore — was "dead".

"Iran has always been a politically polarizing topic in the United States," especially since the JCPOA, said Holly Dagres, an expert on Iran at the Atlantic Council.

"But two events, Tehran arming Russia with armed drones for its war in Ukraine and the ongoing anti-establishment protests after the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini, have made the topic of Iran politically toxic," she said.

"It doesn't mean that diplomacy — such as the current hostage deal — isn't possible, but a landmark agreement like a new JCPOA will be a very tough, if not impossible, sale for both sides of the US political aisle, given the events of the past year," she said.

A Washington-based diplomat said: "The last thing Biden wants to be doing is campaigning next year on Iran."

 

Tougher than 

Obama stance 

 

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, died on September 16, 2022 after her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the strict dress code imposed on women by the clerical leadership.

Amini's death triggered months of nationwide protests in which hundreds of people were killed, marking one of the biggest threats to the Islamic republic founded after the fall of the Western-oriented shah in 1979.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has publicly suggested that a restored nuclear deal was on the table last September before protests broke out.

The Biden administration spoke out forcefully in support of the women-led protests and took actions including sanctions on the notorious morality police.

It was a marked difference from the subdued response by Obama to Iran’s 2009 protests following contested elections — a stance later regretted by the former president, who said his motivation was not to let Tehran brand homegrown demonstrators as Western stooges.

But Biden, in last year’s taped remarks to Iranian diaspora members, said he would not declare the JCPOA dead officially, hinting that it was still useful to keep it on paper, and the United States has been muted on Iran enriching uranium above levels allowed under the 2015 deal.

“Clearly what the Biden team wants is just to prevent the Iran issue from becoming a crisis,” said Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute.

“President Biden and his team have their hands full, with Ukraine, with China,” he said.

He said Biden has essentially settled on a current “unspoken deal” of less rigorous sanctions enforcement in return for Iran taking a less confrontational approach.

Unlike previous administrations, “nobody from what I can tell in the Biden administration harbors illusions of some type of major change in Iran,” Vatanka said.

 

No choice but talks? 

 

Vatanka said that the protests caused a pause in Biden’s approach until it was clear there was no clear alternative in Iran.

Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, which seeks to resolve conflict, said the protests made engagement last year “completely toxic” both for the Biden administration and Europeans.

But he believed the Biden administration would pursue more talks, possibly in the coming weeks, with diplomacy seen as the most effective way to deal with Tehran, even if a major deal is unrealistic.

“At the end of the day, this was a murderous regime in 2015 as well,” when the JCPOA was reached, Vaez said.

“A regime that has blinded hundreds of protesters with rubber bullets cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons,” he said, and for Biden, “they have no option other than engagement”.

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