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Biden and Iran Sanctions

by Mitchell Bard

During his campaign, Joe Biden said his administration would impose “targeted sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile program” and promised “ironclad support for Israel.” He also said the U.S. could snap back sanctions if necessary.

On March 9, 2021, Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced sanctions on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interrogators Ali Hemmatian and Masoud Safdari “for their involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely the torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (CIDTP) of political prisoners and persons detained during protests in 2019 and 2020 in Iran.” The two men and their families are now barred from entry into the United States.

Also, in March, the administration approved a 120-day sancitons waiver to allow Iraq to import energy from Iran.

In April 2021, negotiations on returning to the nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran began in Vienna. During those talks, the United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries to establish a working group to discuss the lifting of sanctions imposed by President Trump. At the outset, the State Department said the administration was prepared to lift all the sanctions reimposed and new ones enacted by President Trump. Iran, meanwhile, insisted that all sanctions U.S. and international sanctions be lifted before it would return to compliance with the nuclear deal.

In what was viewed as an effort to encourage Iranian cooperation in the negotiations, the Treasury Department repealed sanctions on former senior National Iranian Oil Co. officials and several companies involved in shipping and trading petrochemical products on June 10, 2021. The administration denied there was any connection to the negotiations. “These actions demonstrate our commitment to lifting sanctions in the event of a change in status or behavior by sanctioned persons,” Secretary of State Blinken said in a statement accompanying the notice of the action.

Nevertheless, opponents of the nuclear deal were critical. “Lifting sanctions during negotiations shows weakness to Iran and tells Tehran to continue its nefarious activities, including nuclear extortion and sending conventional arms to U.S. adversaries,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former top national security adviser to President Trump. Likewise, Senator Ted Cruz criticized the move to dismantle sanctions “before even the pretense of a deal.”

Iranian sources claimed in late June that Biden negotiators had agreed to lift all sanctions imposed by President Trump, including those related to insrurance, oil, and shipping. Officials in the administration did not directly deny the claim; instead, they said only that negotiations were continuing. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there was still “a fair distance to travel” in the talks, including the lifting of sanctions.

Meanwhile, on June 22, 2021, the Justice Department seized 33 of Iran’s state-linked news website domains which it said were “disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.”

In June 2021, Iran elected Ebrahim Raisi president. The United States imposed sanctions on Raisi in 2019 over his human rights record, which included “administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”

The sanctions could complicate U.S. relations with Iran as they prohibit any dealings with him.

In September 2021, in response to a plot to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist and human rights activist, sanctions were imposed on senior Iran-based intelligence official Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, who led a network of affiliates, including Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori, tasked with planning this kidnapping on U.S. soil as well as targeting Iranian dissidents in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.


Sources: Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “No Matter Who Is U.S. President, Iran Will Drive a Harder Bargain Than Before,” Foreign Affairs, (October 20, 2020).
Steven Erlanger, “Biden Wants to Rejoin Iran Nuclear Deal, but It Won’t Be Easy,” New York Times, (November 17, 2020).
Thomas L. Friedman, “Biden Made Sure ‘Trump Is Not Going to Be President for Four More Years,’” New York Times, (December 2, 2020).
“Officials: US Rescinds Trump Move to Enforce UN Sanctions on Iran, Eases Travel Restrictions on Iranian Diplomats at UN,” AP, (February 18, 2021).
Rachel Oswald, “Blinken tells House panel to expect firmness toward Iran, China,” Roll Call, (March 10, 2021).
“Designation of Iranian Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights,” State Department, (March 9, 2021).
Steven Erlanger, “Iran Nuclear Talks Start on Positive Note in Vienna,” New York Times, (April 9, 2021).
Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab, “No timetable for withdrawal of troops after US, Iraq talks,” AP, (April 7, 2021).
Ian Talley and Laurence Norman, “U.S. Lifts Some Iran Sanctions Amid Stalled Nuclear Talks,” Wall Street Journal, (June 10, 2021).
Farnaz Fassihi, “A Roadblock for Iran’s President-Elect: He’s on the U.S. Sanctions List,” New York Times, (June 19, 2021).
“United States Seizes Websites Used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union and Kata’ib Hizballah,” Department of Justice, (June 22, 2021).
David Rose, “Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi watched as opponents were tortured,” The Times [London], (June 23, 2021).
Humeyra Pamuk and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran says U.S. to lift oil sanctions, Germany cautious on matter,” Reuters, (June 23, 2021).
Antony J. Blinken, “Sanctioning Iranian Intelligence Affiliates for Targeting Dissidents Abroad,” U.S. Department of State, (September 3, 2021).