Washington’s Push for Nuclear Deal With Iran Aids Tehran Even as Ayatollahs Crack Down on Protesters

Biden must ‘stop negotiations as long as women and children are being killed in Iran,’ a leading protest figure tells the Sun.

AP/Lujain Jo
The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, March 27, 2022. AP/Lujain Jo

As anti-regime protests intensify in Iran, pressures are increasing in Washington for ending President Biden’s nuclear negotiations with Tehran and for pushing aside the diplomacy effort’s flag bearer, Robert Malley.  

Several Washington sources tell the Sun there is a growing rift between officials at the treasury department, who are urging Mr. Biden to intensify sanctions in support of protesters, and Mr. Malley, the special envoy who prizes a renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal above all. 

Tehran diplomats have suspended the Vienna-based negotiations on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Yet Mr. Malley, who for now is fully backed by the White House and the state department, is sustaining Washington’s policy on seeking a renewal of the deal. 

By attempting to keep open the JCPOA diplomatic channels, Washington acts to legitimize the Tehran regime even as its enforcers maim and kill the very street protesters that Washington claims to support, Mr. Malley’s detractors say.  

Mr. Biden must “stop negotiations as long as women and children are being killed in Iran,” a leading protest figure, Brooklyn-based Iranian-American Masih Alinejad, told the Sun.

Transitionalists at the state department warn that Iran could suffer the same chaos now seen in Libya or Iraq. Yet, even some of Mr. Biden’s supporters increasingly side with protesters calling for the overthrow of the regime. 

“For the Iranian people to have freedom, there is no way around regime change,” President Obama’s ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro, tweeted on Monday. He added that the administration may not be able to advocate regime change publicly, but it must openly and often proclaim that the regime is “guilty of violating all standards of decency.”

If Europeans view the JCPOA talks “as a reason to tread cautiously around the protests,” Mr. Shapiro writes, America “should convince them otherwise. Whether you hold out hopes for a deal, view the talks as dead, or oppose them, the approach to the protests should be the same.”

Mr. Shapiro until recently was a member of the team that advised Mr. Biden on Iran, and left it in early 2022 to join the Atlantic Council. Two other members of the team, Ariane Tabatabai and Richard Nephew, also left at the time. The state department denied the departures were related to disagreements with the team’s chief, Mr. Malley, and stated Mr. Nephew was reassigned within the department.

Mr. Malley and his current deputy, Jarrett Blanc, now almost single-handedly drive America’s Iran policy. “Rob is our special envoy on Iran,” the state department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said Tuesday, adding that Mr. Malley “is still very much in charge of the team and our efforts here.”

Mr. Price was reacting to Israeli press reports that cited an unnamed official in Prime Minister Lapid’s entourage who, while briefing reporters this week, said that Washington’s Iran policy is “out of the hands of Malley’s camp by now.” That assessment may have been more wishful thinking than reality.  

“Biden’s Iran policy is at a dead end. It urgently needs a reset, or the US will be unable to push back against the Iranian regime’s malign internal and external policies,” a former American hostage in Iran, Xiyue Wang, tweeted yesterday. “Such a policy reset must begin with @USEnvoyIran Rob Malley & his deputy @JarrettBlanc.’’

“Malley is more properly the Envoy for the JCPOA rather than the Envoy for Iran,” Mr. Wang, a frequent critic of Mr. Biden’s Iran policy, argued yesterday in a long Twitter thread that was widely read in Washington. 

Sources are “baffled why Biden administration still focused on reviving a weak Iran nuclear deal that would infuse IRGC with funds while brave Iranian women are standing up to this brutal regime,” and say America “must halt talks and speak up to help these women,” a Fox News Pentagon reporter, Jeniffer Griffin, tweeted today.

“That sentiment is shared by a lot of Washington observers and there have been calls for change for a long time,” the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, Jason Brodsky, told the Sun. “The singular focus on reviving the JCPOA has clouded all other considerations.”

As brave Iranian protesters prove their resilience even while the death toll rises, the pressure on Mr. Biden to openly end, or at last publicly suspend, the JCPOA-based diplomacy will grow.

The administration points to its expression of support for the protesters, including targeted sanctions and licenses to allow telecommunication companies to help the demonstrators. Yet, as the rift between Mr. Malley and the treasury department indicates, even the sanctions are calibered to avoid harming the JCPOA diplomacy. 

Mr. Malley is the Biden administration’s “true north,” an Iran watcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Behnam Ben Taleblu, says. “He will be there as long as the deal is the goal.” 

As long as Washington pursues diplomacy with the regime, he adds, Tehran “will know that there is no serious pushback” against its oppression of the protest movement. 

Correction: Dan Shapiro left the team that advised Mr. Biden on Iran to join the Atlantic Council. An earlier version misstated the reason for his departure.  

The New York Sun

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