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Will Biden dare challenge anti-Iran ‘groupthink’ to negotiate sanctions

Sep 20,2023 - Last updated at Sep 20,2023

The release on Monday of ten Iranians, five imprisoned by Iran as spies and five charged with violating sanctions by the US, and the transfer to Qatar of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues frozen by sanctions in South Korean banks was a welcome humanitarian gesture. The ten, most dual Iran-US citizens, gained their freedom.

The highest profile prisoner freed by Iran is Siamak Nimazi, 52, a businessman, who was detained in 2015. His familiy campaigned relentlessly in the US on his behalf and he gave an exclusive interview to CNN from Evin prison in which he appealed to the Biden administration to free him and his colleagues. The other two ex-prisoners are environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, and businessman Emak Shargi, 59, who were arrested in 2018. They were sentenced to 10 years. An unidentified man and woman made up the five. All flew from Tehran to Qatar where they boarded a flight to Washington.

The men prosecuted in the US were either dual US-Iranian nationals or Iranians with permanent US residence. Mehrdad Moein Ansari, 40, Kambiz Attar Kashani, 44, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, 46, and Amin Hasanzadehm, 46, were charged with breaching sanctions by providing Iran with advanced technology or dual use equipment. Kaveh Afrasiabi, 65, a reputed scholar, was charged for working in the US as an unregistered foreign lobbyist. Sarhangpour and Ansari flew to Qatar before taking a flight to Tehran. Two men have opted to remain in the US and one to go to an undisclosed country to join his family.

It has been hoped that this humanitarian trade might ease tensions between Washington and Tehran but might not.

On one hand, this is because the United States has not recovered from the psycho-political trauma of the 1979 overthrow of its Iranian ally, the shah, and the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran and 444-day detention of 70 US staff by Iranian militants. Since then, the US has shunned every attempt by moderate Iranian politicians to reach peaceful co-existence and has demonised Iran.

On the other hand, Iran's ruling clerics have demonised the US as the "Great Satan" and its ally Israel as the "Little Satan". These epithets have traction with the Iranian public because from 1941 when US asset Mohammed Reza Pahlavi took the throne, the US has meddled in Iranian internal affairs. In 1953, US and British intelligence agencies mounted a coup d'etat against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh who was on course to nationalise Iran's British-controlled oil industry. Before his ouster, he introduced a range of social and political measures such as social security, land reforms and taxes on land. Iranians regard him as a hero who, they believe, would have built secular democracy in Iran. The shah allowed US firms to dominate the market, introduced social reforms opposed by the conservative peasantry, and ruthlessly suppressed oppostion. Corruption was rampant.

Despite Iran's psycho-political trauma, three of Iran's post-revolution clerical presidents have tried and failed to achieve a modus vivendi with the US. The first was pragmatist Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) who tried to end Iran's isolation and rebuild ties with the Arabs and the West. The second, was reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) who pursued a "dialogue of civilisations" to close the gap between Iran and the international community. The third was reformist Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) who broke briefly through dense US ice to negotiate with the Obama administration the 2015 agreement limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. However, President Barack Obama cheated by imposing fresh sanctions after signing the deal and failing to lift secondary sanctions punishing any governments, firms and individuals doing business with Iran. This sustained Tehran's mistrust of the US and limited Iran's benefits from the deal from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, plunging US-Iran's relations into an abyss. 

Although Joe Biden promised during his election campaign to recommit the US to the nuclear deal, he has reneged and continued to demonise and pile sanctions on Iran in line with Trump's hardline approach. Dictated by hardliners in his administration, Congress and anti-Iran lobbyists Biden's policy has resulted in the take-over by hardliners in Tehran and the 2021 election of right-wing Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency.

But even Raisi seems to have overcome Iranian demonisation and "groupthink" to express the hope that the prisoner exchange could be a "confidence building" gesture and a "step in the direction of [further] humanitarian action between us and America".

While in New York for the UN General Assembly, Raisi has attempted to bridge the political gulf between Tehran and Washington by conducting meetings with influential figures and groups. Tehran would like to resume negotiations which would give the country some freedom from the iron grip of US sanctions. They harm the Iranian population and amount to "collective punishment" which is illegal under international law.

It remains to be seen whether Biden dares to challenge prevailing anti-Iran "groupthink" in his administration to negotiate an informal agreement to ease sanctions if Iran were to halt uranium enrichment to 60 per cent purity, approaching 90 per cent needed for weapons, and renew full cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency monitors of its nuclear facilities.

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