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Iran Angles for Advantage on Biden’s Priority List

Iran has threatened to block nuclear inspections next month, and further increased production of fuel that could be enriched for use in bombs …

Iran has threatened to block nuclear inspections next month, and further increased production of fuel that could be enriched for use in bombs. It has seized an American ally’s cargo ship. And it has incarcerated yet another American citizen on spying charges.

These are just some of the steps Iran has taken in recent weeks in what is seen as part of an increasingly impatient strategy to pressure President Biden, who has said he wants to reverse many actions taken by his predecessor, Donald J. Trump.

Those reversals include returning to the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, abandoned by Mr. Trump, which had severely constrained Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s adversaries have long seen that program as a path toward the country building nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists that it has always been intended only for peaceful purposes.

Mr. Trump slapped many tough economic sanctions on Iran in what he called a “maximum pressure” strategy to force the Iranians to renegotiate the accord. But Iran refused to renegotiate and instead ramped up its nuclear activity after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, while also pursuing its missile program and regional policies opposed by the United States.

In December, the Iranian Parliament passed legislation that required the government to abandon its obligations under the nuclear deal in a series of defined steps.

“Iran is shifting phases from waiting and patience to aggression and action. It is time and the enemy can see the signs very clearly,” a conservative analyst in Iran, Mehdi Mohammadi, said in a Twitter post early this month.

But Mr. Biden has shown no particular urgency in re-engaging with Iran in the week since he was inaugurated, preoccupied with numerous other crises in a spillover from the Trump years, most notably the uncontrolled Covid-19 pandemic and America’s own economic travails.

Moreover, the pushback from Republicans, the pro-Israel lobby and vocal opposition groups highlighting Iran’s human rights violations make a return to the nuclear agreement with a stroke of the presidential pen politically tricky.

Even so, Iranian leaders’ irritation at the lack of action has escalated in recent days, given Mr. Biden’s flurry of executive orders on other matters. From President Hassan Rouhani and his subordinates, a chorus has been urging — through interviews, social media and public comments — that Mr. Biden move quickly to restore the accord without imposing any preconditions on Iran.

In turn, Iran has pledged that it, too, would return to honoring its commitments to cap enrichment and allow inspectors access.

“If they issue an order, Iran too will issue an order, not more. If they return to their commitments, we will also return to our commitments,” said Mr. Rouhani at a televised cabinet meeting on the day of Mr. Biden’s inauguration.

President Biden has shown no particular urgency in re-engaging with Iran in the week since he was inaugurated.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Mr. Biden and his top policy advisers, including the just-confirmed secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, have said they want to see Iran return to compliance with the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, before nullifying any sanctions imposed by Mr. Trump.

“President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations,” said Mr. Blinken at a Wednesday news conference, “the United States would do the same thing.” He added: “But we are a long ways from that point.”

Iranian officials have publicly rejected that approach, insisting that the Americans first scrap the sanctions, which were the initial violation of the accord, and only then would Iran return to compliance. That view was reinforced on Wednesday in an opinion piece by Iran’s United Nations ambassador, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, published in The New York Times.

“The window is closing,” the ambassador wrote. “If the new administration does not meet its obligations and remove sanctions in short order, it will destroy the possibility for engagement within the nuclear agreement.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sought to amplify the pressure on Mr. Biden this week during a visit to Russia, which, along with China, Britain, France and Germany, still honors the accord and has sought to preserve it. “With the change of administration in the U.S. we have heard words but have seen no action,” said Mr. Zarif.

He reiterated a threat by Iran to restrict visits by international nuclear inspectors — a flagrant violation of the accord — as of Feb. 21, under the law passed by Parliament, which followed the assassination in November of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iran has blamed Israel and the United States for the killing.

Mr. Biden’s caution toward an opening with Iran is rooted in the antipathy that has dominated the U.S.-Iranian relationship since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the American hostage crisis and the severing of diplomatic relations. There is strong bipartisan support for a tough stand toward Iran, which the State Department has classified since 1984 as a state sponsor of terrorism, and is regarded by both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the closest American allies in the region, as a dangerous threat.

While Iran has done nothing to provoke a military confrontation with the United States since Mr. Biden’s election, it has taken steps to at least get his attention. On Jan. 4, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps seamen seized a South Korean ship amid a simmering dispute over South Korea’s impounding $7 billion in Iranian oil revenue, frozen by American sanctions.

Just days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Iranian media reported the conviction of an Iranian-American businessman, Emad Sharghi, on unspecified espionage charges. Mr. Sharghi joined at least three other American citizens of Iranian descent held in Iran, according to a list compiled by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group.

In a signal of Mr. Biden’s own suspicions toward Iran, the American military said Wednesday that a B-52 bomber had flown over the Middle East for the third time this year — and for the first time since he had become commander in chief. The B-52 operations, aimed at deterring Iran from any military provocations, had begun under Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden also may be reluctant to re-engage with Iran until that country’s own internal politics signal some clarity. President Rouhani, who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, is now in the last six months of his final term. He has been severely criticized by hard-liners who could wield more power after elections in June.

At the same time, an American return to the nuclear deal could have an impact on the elections, giving a boost to more moderate forces and affecting the direction of Iran’s next administration.

“That can change the atmosphere in Iran, and it can be very influential and important in domestic politics here,” said Nasser Hadian, a professor of international relations at Tehran University who is close to Iran’s foreign ministry.

Others say Iran’s demonstrations of impatience reflect a realization among Iranian leaders that Mr. Biden faces enormous challenges everywhere.

“I think the Iranians recognized that they are going to be competing with other Biden priorities — Covid, the U.S. economy, climate,” said Henry Rome, an analyst who covers Iran for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

“When you go into the foreign affairs realm, it’s in the top five, but it’s not Number One. You have Europe, China, Russia, and then comes Iran,” Mr. Rome said. “Iran recognizes they are not a top priority and are trying to move themselves up the list.”

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