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Fmr State Dept Spox: Iran Nuclear Deal Dead as Anti-Regime Protests Surge

Protesters trample on a picture of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi / Getty Images
• November 11, 2022 6:00 pm

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The Biden administration’s negotiations over a revamped version of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are dead as the result of massive anti-regime protests that have swept across the Islamic Republic, according to the former Trump administration’s State Department spokeswoman.

"I don’t see any room or any space for [the administration] to build back into" the long-stalled negotiations, Morgan Ortagus, who served under former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, said during a panel discussion Friday afternoon at the Richard Nixon Foundation’s Grand Strategy Summit in Washington, D.C. "It would be a political disaster in the U.S. and a disaster for the people of Iran who are rejecting this regime."

How could the Biden administration "financially empower the very oppressors of the women and teenagers we’re supposed to be standing up for and standing with?" Ortagus asked.

Ortagus, who played a central role in the Trump administration’s effort to sanction the Iranian regime, said the Biden administration has "zero leverage" with the Iranian regime at the moment. The nationwide protests that have swept across Iran in the last month are likely the final nail in the coffin for negotiations over a revamped nuclear deal, she said. While the Biden administration has condemned the Iranian government’s violent crackdown on protesters, it has refrained from repeating the protesters’ calls for regime change.

Upon entering office, President Joe Biden’s team "didn’t have a plan for Iran except for going back into the JCPOA," the official acronym for the Iran deal, Ortagus said. If the administration had been able to finalize another "weak and pathetic deal," Ortagus said that around three-fourths of the Senate would have rejected it. Iran, she added, "played [Biden] for 18 months" and "I don’t see any strategy" going forward.

Jon Alterman, a former State Department official who heads the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, pushed back on Ortagus’s assessment. He said the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign on Tehran—which included the toughest sanctions regime in history—failed because U.S. allies were not on board.

It is "deeply mistaken and perhaps dishonest to argue the Biden admin thought the JCPOA was going to fix Iran," Alterman said. "Our record of changing governments and putting something better in their place is pretty checkered."

Alterman said he agrees with the Biden administration’s response to the anti-regime protest movement in Iran.

"The Biden administration actually has been walking a reasonable line to criticize the Iranian government for its abuses, but to be careful not to speak for the protesters, not to advocate for the protesters."

However, Iranian dissident groups in the United States and other Western countries have pressed for a more aggressive response by the Biden administration, with some calling for the president to fire U.S. Iran envoy Robert Malley, who has become the face of the administration’s diplomacy with Tehran.

Ortagus said the Trump administration was never focused on regime change in Iran, but stopping it from fomenting terrorism across the Middle East and Europe.

"The conversation was never about fixing a regime or choosing who would lead Iran. That’s for the Iranian people to decide," she said. "There were never any discussions that I was privy to and a part of" that included regime change.