Iran’s next president gives Biden a new nuclear headache

“Iran has chosen a new president, which means Joe Biden faces a new dilemma.

Ebrahim Raisi, the victor in Iran’s recent, tightly controlled election, is not just any hardline Iranian politician. He stands accused of an array of human rights abuses, including the mass killing of political dissidents, and former President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on him. Now, Biden and top aides, led by U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley, are facing pressure over whether to lift the sanctions on Raisi as they negotiate with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.”

“Raisi, 60, is a cleric with long experience in Iran’s regime, including overseeing its judiciary. He is implicated in many human rights abuses, among them an alleged role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Raisi, who will take over the presidency in August, won an election Friday that was manipulated in his favor after many candidates were disqualified. That manipulation upset a large number of ordinary Iranians, and voter turnout was unusually low.”

What Ebrahim Raisi’s election means for Iran — and the U.S.

“Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner favored by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, handily won Saturday’s Iranian presidential election, which saw historically low turnout. He’ll take over for the more moderate incumbent President Hassan Rouhani in August. That will obviously mean changes at home, but it should also affect the Tehran-Washington relationship.”

“Raisi’s victory, meanwhile, may actually help solidify the re-establishment of a nuclear pact between the U.S. and Iran, despite Raisi harboring more hostility toward Washington than his predecessor. Vaez and The New York Times contend Khamenei is pulling the strings here and will push Rouhani to finish negotiations in the next few weeks, understanding that getting the U.S. to lift oil sanctions is paramount to Iran’s economy bouncing back. But this way, the moderates will take the heat for “capitulating to the West and bear the brunt of popular anger inside Iran if sanctions relief doesn’t rescue the nation’s stricken economy,” the Times notes. And if the sanctions relief does bring about improvement? Well, then Raisi can take credit for the success.”

A deadly fight 33 years ago shows just how destructive a war between the US and Iran could get

“a future conflict is unlikely to go as smoothly for the US as Operation Praying Mantis did, mainly due to Iran’s military modernization and expansion.

Iran’s Navy has gotten larger and more capable, with more vessels able to launch anti-ship missiles and at least three Russian-built Kilo-class attack submarines in service.

Last year, an Iranian Navy exercise included an attack on a barge designed to look like a US aircraft carrier. In January, Iran unveiled the Makran, a “forward base ship” capable of carrying drones and helicopters.

The IRGCN has also been expanding its numbers and capabilities, including recent reports that it is building large missile-laden catamarans.

Iran’s sea mines remain potent, but the biggest threat comes from Iran’s missile arsenal, which is considerably larger and more advanced than it was in the 1980s.

In recent years, Iranian missiles have been used to attack Saudi oil facilities and civilian sites, as well as ships. In January 2020, Iranian cruise missiles hit US bases in Iraq, injuring over 100 service members.

Iran’s missiles failed to hit their targets during Operation Praying Mantis, but things could be very different in the future.”

Israel’s suspected attack on an Iranian nuclear site complicates US-Iran talks

“A mysterious power outage occurred at one of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities..in what reports indicate was likely an act of cyber-sabotage carried out by Israel — and it could have serious ramifications for the future of the floundering 2015 nuclear deal.”

“Under that original agreement, Iran agreed to significantly curb its nuclear program — including its uranium enrichment efforts — in exchange for the removal of some of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US.
But after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed those sanctions, Iran once again began to enrich uranium above the levels set by the deal.”

“It’s unclear if the Biden administration got a heads-up before the strike, though many believe the US was probably informed, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Israel at the time of the incident. The Biden administration firmly denies any foreknowledge or participation, though. “The US was not involved in any manner,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Either way, two big questions arise from this episode. The first is whether the Natanz attack might lead to a greater confrontation between Israel and Iran. Experts I spoke to don’t really think so, as Jerusalem has carried out many of these strikes without a serious overt response from Tehran.

They “fit a pattern of how the Israelis have tried to set back Iran’s program in the past. In that sense, this is business as usual,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC.

The second is if the attack might derail the sensitive negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the nuclear deal. And that, experts said, is certainly possible.”

“Those making this argument say that Iran has less political space to agree to a deal with the US now, because doing so would be extra embarrassing after being attacked. As a result, any progress on this front will at best be delayed and at worst derailed indefinitely. “Iran doesn’t like to appear that it is negotiating from a weakened position or under pressure,” Eric Brewer, who worked on nuclear issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tweeted on Monday.

Others, though, say that delaying Iran’s uranium enrichment by nine months actually weakens Iran’s position in nuclear talks. If Tehran increased its enrichment to pressure the US to get back into the pact — essentially proving it would keep inching closer and closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon unless the US agreed to come back to the deal — then without the ability to enrich uranium as quickly, that pressure on Washington potentially decreases.

What’s more, Iran is used to Israeli attacks. It therefore won’t be shocked into changing its long-term goal of getting the sanctions relief it desperately needs.”

48 hours of border chaos: Inside a CBP crackdown on Iranian Americans

“Hours after a U.S. military drone killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran, the head of field operations for the border in Washington state gathered her senior staff on an emergency conference call.

It was the first Friday in 2020 — still a holiday for many — and director Adele Fasano spoke from home about the email she’d just received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters advising “heightened vigilance” following the airstrike.

She instructed assistant directors of field operations and area port directors to institute “heightened security measures.” When the call ended, the Seattle CBP office circulated a “high threat alert” memo among management outlining new criteria for enhanced vetting of cross-border travelers.

The message to rank-and-file agents was clear: Target travelers with ties to Iran, Lebanon and Palestine.

During the next 48 hours, 277 people — dozens of them American citizens or legal permanent residents — would be stopped and held for secondary screenings as they tried to cross into the U.S. from Canada. Many said they were held for more than six hours. Some were denied access to medicine or questioned about their relatives. Most had no idea why they were stopped, though they had their suspicions.

One Iranian American, held for six hours overnight at the Pacific Highway crossing, likened the scene to “a modern-day version of Japanese internment camps.””

How Biden’s best-laid plans for Iran and Saudi Arabia failed in his first month

“As the Democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal. He then aimed to leverage that negotiation to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior — like its growing ballistic missile program — in follow-on chats.

But in the Oval Office, the president has found the Islamic Republic resistant to diplomacy — but willing to have proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East. That led Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against those militants, hoping that would deter future attacks while keeping the door open for talks.

And on the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make it “pay the price” for human rights violations, including the grisly 2018 murder of dissident, US resident, and columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Though he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday directly blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, Biden declined to punish the nation’s de facto ruler outright. Instead of authorizing sanctions, a travel ban, or an asset freeze, the president created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. It’s unclear if that includes heads of state, however.

That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials say. A major consideration was that MBS, as the crown prince is known, may soon officially run the country, so targeting him personally could doom future relations between Washington and Riyadh.”

Biden ordered airstrike after determining Iran supported rocket attacks

“The attacks and retaliatory strike marked the first major military action of the Biden administration. The strike was calculated to signal to Iran that such attacks through proxies in the region would not be tolerated, the officials said, while avoiding escalation into a wider conflict as Biden seeks a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran on the Iran nuclear deal.
The “proportionate” military response was conducted along with diplomatic measures, including consulting with coalition partners, the Pentagon said.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.””

“”The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks — the facilities are utilized by KSS and KH — and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said. “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”

At around 6 p.m. EST on Thursday night, U.S. fighter jets dropped seven 500-pound precision bombs on seven targets in eastern Syria, the official said. All bombs hit their targets, a crossing used by several Iran-backed militia groups to move weapons and other goods across the border. Initial reports suggest there were no casualties, militant or civilian.

Biden made the strategic decision to conduct the strike in Syria, rather than on Iraqi soil, in order to avoid pressure on the Iraqi government, the official said.

Conducting an airstrike in Syria is also less politically complicated for the Biden administration than an operation in Iraq, said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the RAND Corp. The U.S. does not need to request the permission of the Syrian government as it does not recognize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, she said.

The airstrike came after Biden spoke Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The White House readout of the call hinted at the coming action. The men “discussed the recent rocket attacks against Iraqi and Coalition personnel and agreed that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account.””

Iran’s execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam, briefly explained

“Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, whose reporting helped spur large anti-government protests, was executed by Iran”

“Zam, 47, was found guilty of “corruption on earth” and sentenced to death”

“The vague charge of “corruption on earth” is often used “in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government,” Al Jazeera reported Saturday.

Zam ran the site Amad News and coordinated a Telegram channel, both of which helped spread information during a wave of anti-regime protests that shook Iran in 2017 and 2018. He was living abroad in Paris at the time, but returned to the Middle East in 2019 and was arrested in Iraq by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”