President Joe Biden hit back at Iran for the government’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. He praised the “brave women of Iran” for demanding basic rights and made it clear that he would announce more sanctions in the coming days against those responsible for violence against protesters.
The outburst of anger, mostly led by young women and directed at the government’s male leadership, has created a turning point for the country, prompting some of the biggest and boldest protests against the country’s Islamic leadership in years.
And while the Biden administration says it is committed to supporting Iran’s women, the president faces a tough question: Can he stand up to the protest movement with dignity while trying to save the fraught 2015 Iran nuclear deal that would have poured billions into Tehran’s coffers?
“The risk of a nuclear Iran is dire on every level,” Marian Keipour Greenblatt, director of the Iran Human Rights Activist Network and a foreign scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program, wrote in an analysis this week. “However, President Biden simply cannot offer the prospect of lifting sanctions and de facto legitimizing a regime that mercilessly shoots its own citizens in the streets.”
Mahsa Amini, 22, died in custody after being detained for violating the country’s strict religious dress code.
The week-long protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in an Iranian detention center. Morality police detained Amini last month for failing to properly wear the Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab, which is compulsory for Iranian women. Amini fainted at the police station and died three days later.
Her death and the ensuing unrest come at a difficult time as the administration tries to bring Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration and scrapped by the Trump administration.
The deal was already on the verge of collapse, despite Biden’s efforts to revive it. But the administration has not given up hope of a turnaround through indirect negotiations with the Iranian leadership. The pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, would see Tehran lift billions in sanctions in exchange for the country agreeing to scale back its nuclear program to limits set by the 2015 deal. The agreement includes limits on enrichment and the amount of material that can be stockpiled, and limits the operation of the advanced centrifuges needed for enrichment.
Chances of returning to the deal have become extremely close since the beginning of this year, but have been derailed by Iranian demands that the US says are not part of the original deal. And now the prospects for resuming negotiations are bleak, at least until this fall.
Critics of the nuclear deal say the administration should end all consideration of the possibility of a new deal. They say the windfall from sanctions Iran will receive will be used to further suppress its own people and fund proxies, exacerbating broader threats in the region.
But so far, the administration has stuck to Biden’s original campaign position: the Iran deal will make the world safer. Such a strong point of view creates an unusual split-screen dynamic for Biden, who has often spoken about the need to stand firm in the battle of democracy against autocracy.
His administration has insisted that nuclear talks with Iran proceed separately — even condemning Tehran’s sale of drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine; ongoing attacks on US allies in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq; Holocaust denial by Iran’s president and supreme leader; illegal detention of American citizens; and now a brutal attempt to stifle the voices of Iranian women who stand up for basic rights.
“Look, I mean … we have concerns with Iran; we’ve talked about it before,” White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said earlier this week. “But the JCPOA is the best way for us to solve the nuclear problem that we see. As long as we believe it is in the national security interests of the United States to continue negotiating the JCPOA, we will continue to do so.”
Officials say they remain convinced of the Obama administration’s main argument when negotiating the original nuclear deal in 2015: An Iran with nuclear weapons is more dangerous than an Iran without one, regardless of the circumstances.
There were other moments when pent-up anger lashed the Islamic Republic only to die out. In 2009, millions of people took to the streets in the so-called “Green Movement” after the government declared victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in hotly contested presidential elections.
Tens of thousands of disaffected Iranians protested in 2017 and 2018 against the country’s declining economy and demanded greater social freedom. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed during protests at the end of 2019, sparked by a sharp rise in fuel prices and government policies.
But Amini’s death sparked outrage that resonated far beyond Iran. Videos circulating on social media showed schoolgirls marching through the streets without hijabs, while female college students chanted for independence, freedom and the death of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The White House says the administration’s support for the protesters has been strong.
Biden spoke about the protesters at the UN General Assembly last month. Last week, the United States swiftly imposed sanctions against the country’s morality police, and more sanctions are expected in the coming days.
Still, some analysts say the administration has so far offered only a mild response to the crackdown on demonstrations. The most significant support the administration has given to the protesters has been easing restrictions on software and hardware exports to make it easier for Iranians to communicate with each other and the outside world.
Karim Sajjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it’s time for the administration to think bigger.
“The Biden administration should expand its strategy in Iran to focus not only on countering the destructive aspirations of the Iranian regime, but also on championing the constructive aspirations of the Iranian people to live in a free society at peace with the world,” Sajjadpour said.