On Tuesday, Iran’s English-language propaganda network, Press TV, quoted a high-ranking Iranian official as saying that the country would continue enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity for as long as US sanctions remained in place. The report did not even rule out the possibility of Iran ramping up its enrichment activities even further as Western nations try to navigate an impasse created by contradictory demands coming from Tehran and Washington.
When campaigning for office last year, US President Joe Biden signaled his willingness to return to the nuclear agreement that his predecessor pulled out of in May 2018. The Trump administration’s withdrawal led to the re-imposition of sanctions that had been suspended under that deal, and also to the imposition of new sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” strategy aimed at compelling Iran to agree to much more comprehensive restrictions on its malign activity.
Biden has seemingly acknowledged the need for those broader restrictions, which would include not only limits on uranium enrichment and stockpiling, but also on the regime’s development and testing of ballistic missiles, its regional meddling, and its penchant for foreign terrorism and domestic human rights violations. Toward that end, the current administration has floated the idea that a return to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action could be a stepping stone to a new round of negotiations and a new agreement.
If the White House is serious about this proposal, it is also naïve. There’s no reason to expect that the Islamic Republic will submit to requests for further negotiation after it has already gotten what it wanted through re-implementation of the JCPOA. In fact, Tehran has repeatedly and unequivocally ruled out the prospect of those negotiations while also insisting that the US must take the first step toward restoring the existing deal. The Press TV report is the latest iteration of that ultimatum, differing from earlier statements only in that it clarifies a fundamental aversion to compromise of any kind.
Other participants in the debate have floated the idea of Iran and the US exchanging small steps in the direction of the status quo, with the former scaling back its systematic violations of the JCPOA while the latter suspends sanctions a few at a time. Now it is clear that Tehran will not even scale back its most threatening and most universally condemned nuclear activities. It is a position that is apparently every bit as motivated by the regime’s desire to project a false image of strength as it is by the pragmatic goal of compelling the US to provide Iranian authorities with an immediate financial windfall that might protect their economy from outright collapse.
Of course, the first goal necessitates that Tehran deny the second. Accordingly, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have been doing everything in their power to insist that Iran is financially stable in spite of the numerous markers of economic downturn that have been emerging one after another for several years.
That downturn is not entirely attributable to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy, and the persistent threat to the Iranian economy is not entirely attributable to the Biden administration’s refusal to instantly reverse that strategy. Underlying factors were highlighted, for instance, in a nationwide uprising that emerged at the end of 2017 and continued through much of January 2018, four months before the US pulled out of the JCPOA and eight months before sanctions actually began being re-imposed.
The uprising grew out of a protest in Iran’s “second city” of Mashhad, which was focused squarely on economic issues. As it spread to more than 100 cities and towns, the movement also took on a more provocatively anti-government tone, with participants making it clear that they held the very nature of the theocratic system responsible for their hardship – not any sort of foreign pressure targeting that system.
The associated slogans were repeated in two other uprisings during the following two years, and they flew in the face of Tehran’s recurring efforts to blame the US for making life more difficult in Iran. In a speech marking the Iranian New Year in March, Khamenei unsurprisingly praised his own regime for supposedly weathering the storm of maximum pressure and coming out on the other side as the victorious party, prepared to confront Washington with ultimatums and to take advantage of a geopolitical situation that has “changed in Iran’s favor.”
Such statements shouldn’t be taken seriously by the policymakers who are tasked with responding to those ultimatums. But then again, the primary audience for Khamenei’s rhetoric is probably the domestic population. He and other leading authorities are intent on proving the activists behind three recent uprisings that the clerical regime has somehow become stronger as a result of its policy of depriving the Iranian people while lavishly spending its sparse resources on self-serving projects that include but are not limited to the expansion of nuclear activities.
The Iranian people are skeptical about such messaging, to say the least. This was demonstrated by the fact that activists in over a dozen provinces were still motivated to pour into the streets to protest the January 2020 downing of a commercial airliner by the Revolutionary Guards even after that same hardline paramilitary had opened fire on participants in the previous uprising, killing 1,500. But Western governments would risk too much by assuming that this resilience is solely a feature of Iran’s domestic situation, as opposed to being influenced by the increased pressure Tehran was then facing from the US and from increasingly vocal dissenters in other Western policy circles.
Under the Trump administration, the US directly acknowledged Iran’s protests and explicitly challenged the regime’s efforts to portray itself as impervious to all threats from foreign adversaries as well as from Iran’s organized, pro-democracy movement led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Under those circumstances, the Iranian people had good reason to believe that the US would stand with them or at least steadfastly refuse to take the regime’s side when serious clashes between the regime and the population occurred.
This is not to say that those reasons have evaporated since the presidential transition. But they would surely begin to evaporate if the Biden administration decided to provide Tehran with concessions in order to bribe it into scaling down its uranium enrichment or generally signing back onto the JCPOA. Doing so would send the message that Khamenei is in some sense right about the regime’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with global superpowers.
Of course, in that case the reason would not be the theocratic dictatorship’s inherent strength but rather a weakness of will that has come back into fashion in the US, and never went out of fashion in Europe. It won’t take much for Western allies to avoid this outcome. The groundwork of maximum pressure has already been laid, and dozens of European lawmakers have signed their names to statements endorsing it. What’s more, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic should be able to find ample motivation to follow that path simply by looking at the rhetoric currently pouring out of Tehran.
All those policymakers need to do is listen to Tehran threatening to continue uranium enrichment without regard for US sanctions and then respond by saying, “We call your bluff.”