Iran, U.S. Harden Positions In Nuclear

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.

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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.