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The Farda Briefing: Iran, U.S. Harden Positions In Nuclear Talks


An explosion is seen behind a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps during a military exercise in southwestern Iran on December 22. (Reuters)

Welcome back to The Farda Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter.

I'm Frud Bezhan, the editor of RFE/RL's Iran Desk, filling in this week for senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I’ve been following and what I’m watching out for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

For the past year, Iran and the United States have been locked in indirect talks to restore the 2015 nuclear accord. That deal curbed Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

A draft deal to restore the agreement is already on the table.

But an unrelated issue -- Tehran's demand that Washington delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran's elite military force, as a foreign terrorist organization -- has put the brakes on restoring the nuclear deal.

As each side waits to see who blinks first, both have hardened their positions.

The Biden administration appears increasingly reluctant to delist the IRGC. Iran, meanwhile, has threatened to “attack the heart of Israel,” which is adamantly opposed to the original deal and any effort to restore it.

Why It Matters. If Iran and the United States cannot agree on delisting the IRGC, the negotiations over restoring the nuclear deal could collapse. Under that scenario, Tehran could face more sanctions.

The sides could agree on an interim deal, under which Tehran agrees to suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for some sanctions relief. Or, in a worst-case scenario, the United States or its allies in the region, including Israel, could take military action. Most sides are keen to avoid the latter.

Nonetheless, a compromise over the IRGC terrorist designation appears increasingly unlikely, driven mostly by politics.

When the Trump administration blacklisted the IRGC, it was largely symbolic. But if U.S. President Joe Biden removes the designation, he is likely to face a severe backlash from Republications as well as officials in his own Democrat camp. Biden, analysts say, will be reluctant to be characterized as a president who is soft on terrorism.

What’s Being Said: "If Iran wants sanctions lifting that goes beyond the JCPOA (an acronym for the official name of the nuclear deal), they'll need to address concerns of ours that go beyond the JCPOA," said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

"Messages [from Washington] sent through [European Union coordinator Enrique] Mora these past weeks... are far from providing solutions that could lead to an accord," said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

"The Republicans are bound to accuse [Biden] of allowing Iran to become a virtual nuclear weapons state under his watch now. And that is the political cost that I think the president is reluctant to pay," said Ali Vaez, an Iran expert from the International Crisis Group.

What’s Next: That is the decision facing Tehran and Washington in the coming days and weeks. If the talks over the nuclear deal collapse, both sides will incur high political costs. If a compromise is reached, the sides will seal a win-win. Considering the high stakes, many expected some kind of bargain. But that is far from certain.

The Stories You Might Have Missed

  • Christian converts have faced decades of persecution in Iran, where authorities have repressed many of the country’s religious minorities. In the latest case that has highlighted the plight of Iran’s Christian community, two Christian converts began their prison terms on April 16. Fariba Dalir and Sakineh Behjati had both been convicted of "acting against national security." Evangelical Christians in Iran can face the death penalty for converting from Islam. Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said in February that at least 53 Christian converts were arrested in Iran in 2021.
  • One of Iran’s most prominent jailed human rights activists, Narges Mohammadi, has returned to prison after she was briefly allowed out for medical reasons. But more than a week in, her lawyer says prison officials are withholding medication from his client, even though she suffers from a heart condition. Lawyer Mustafa Nili said that "despite the provision and delivery of drugs to the prison, the authorities have refused to hand them over to Narges Mohammadi." Mohammadi was arrested in November 2021 after she attended the memorial of a man killed by Iranian security forces during nationwide protests in 2019. In January, a court sentenced her to another eight years and two months in prison.

What We're Watching

Many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet in a decimated economy that has been crushed by crippling U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement.

Teachers and other public-sector workers trying to cope with soaring inflation have staged rallies for better pay and bigger pensions.

The rallies started as rare and isolated acts of protest. But, in recent months, they have spread considerably. In February, the rallies spread to over 100 cities and towns across Iran. A new round of protests is set for April 21.

Why It Matters: The protests reflect rising anti-government sentiment in Iran. In protests over the high cost of living in 2017, over gasoline prices in 2019, and over water shortages in 2021, Iranians increasingly focused their anger on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the clerically dominated system.

Authorities have routinely met previous eruptions of public anger with violence, including shootings and mass arrests.

The teacher protests have been no different, with many teachers being detained. In what the Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) organization said was an "intensification of the crackdown on civil society in Iran," authorities last week sentenced a teachers' union activist to five years in prison.

That’s all from me for now. Don't hesitate to send us any questions, comments, or tips that you have by responding to this e-mail or separately to newsletters@rferl.org

And we invite you to check out the improved Farda website in English and its dedicated Twitter account, which showcase all of our compelling journalism from Iran.

Until next time,

Frud Bezhan

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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