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Iran wants a deal ‘US must refuse’

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Picture: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/Taken on September 14, 2007 – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers in Tehran. President Joe Biden’s administration should tighten economic sanctions, and rally European allies to do the same against Iran, which is willing to accept a deal, the writer says.

By Bobby Ghosh

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is signalling a willingness to make a new nuclear deal with the West, but on terms that would allow the Islamic Republic to maintain its nuclear threat. The ‘US shouldn’t fall for the trap.

Rather, President Joe Biden’s administration should step up implementation of existing economic sanctions, and rally European allies to impose even tighter restraints on the regime in Tehran.

Over the weekend, state media reported Khamenei as saying, “There is nothing wrong with the agreement [with the West], but the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched.” The implication is that Iran should be given relief from economic sanctions but allowed to keep the equipment it has developed in racing toward the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium over the past two years.

This is an attempt to break the standoff between Iran and the world powers that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 deal that sought to severely limit Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. ‘US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal two years later and reimposed sanctions – to the chagrin of the other signatories.

Biden entered office in 2021 offering to ease restrictions if Tehran would adhere to its end of the deal. His officials have also occasionally talked about a “less for less” interim agreement, in which some sanctions could be lifted if Iran halted uranium enrichment well short of weapons grade. (The White House last week denied that any such deal is in the offing).

Yet since Biden’s election, the Iranians have accelerated their enrichment activity as well as the development of missiles and military drones, the better to threaten their neighbours and menace international shipping in the Persian Gulf. They also increased funding and training for a network of proxy militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East. These programmes were aided by the Biden administration’s lax implementation of existing sanctions, which allowed the regime to export record quantities of oil.

Although Biden and his officials have repeatedly claimed that they are resolved to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, they have done little to stop the Islamic Republic from reaching the nuclear threshold, from where it is only days from acquiring enough fissile material for a bomb. Khamenei now says the West, even if it wanted to, couldn’t stop Iran from developing one. (He claims nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, but Iran was caught trying to make one, with Russian help, in 2002.)

The supreme leader knows a return to the JCPOA would require him to give up most of those gains, as well as the ability to threaten Israel and dictate terms to the Arab states in the region. That is why he is, in effect, proposing a new deal.

It is not clear whether he will consider giving up the uranium stockpile his nuclear scientists have built up – his negotiators can use that as leverage in parleys with the West – but he wants to keep the infrastructure to build a new stockpile at a time of his choosing. In return, the West would be required to lift sanctions, allowing the regime to simultaneously build a substantial war chest by increasing oil exports.

Call it “less for more”.

Khamenei’s chutzpah at offering such terms comes from his reading that his enemies are vulnerable. Like all autocrats, he interprets accommodation as weakness, and he has seen that Biden offers little more than admonishment while Iran ramps up oil exports and Arab states like Saudi Arabia look to make peace with Tehran.

Furthermore, he reckons that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in addition to creating a market for Iranian military drones, has made the West anxious about energy prices, and that much keener to bring more oil into the market, even if it is Iranian. The Biden administration’s eagerness to talk – ‘US and Iranian officials held indirect discussions in Oman last month’ – will only have confirmed his suspicions.

Finally, it has not escaped the old theocrat’s attention that his regime has paid no meaningful price for its misdeeds, whether it be flouting sanctions, selling drones to Russia or cracking down brutally on peaceful demonstrators at home.

But Khamenei’s confidence masks the fact that he himself holds a weak hand. The antiregime protests may have been stamped out, but they exposed the fundamental illegitimacy of his regime. Iranians, especially women and young people, reject the theocracy and want freedom. There will be other uprisings, each more determined than the last.

Discontent with Khamenei’s rule will only grow with economic stagnation. Although the regime claims record earnings from exports, little of this windfall has trickled down to the economy, where jobs are scarce and investment is paltry.

The Biden administration should, therefore, respond to Khamenei’s proposal by tightening the screws rather than easing them. It should end the negligence it has shown toward the imposition of existing sanctions and encourage its allies to impose even more restrictions. Anger at Iran’s exports of drones to Russia gives the ‘US leverage to break European resistance to taking a tougher stance against Tehran.

One place to start would be for the European Union to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation, as the ‘US did in 2019. The IRGC is Khamenei’s main instrument of repression at home and intimidation abroad, and has more than earned the designation. The ‘US and its European allies should then redouble vigilance to impose the maximum penalties allowed under the sanctions on any individual or organisation enabling Iranian oil exports or doing business with the IRGC and its extensive network of commercial operations.

The message to Khamenei must be unambiguous: There will be no new deal on his terms.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

This article was published in The Washington Post