The State Department is offering support to anti-regime protesters who have been storming the streets in Iran, even as the Biden administration negotiates a revamped nuclear deal that would provide Tehran with billions of dollars and help fortify the hardline government's grip on the country.
The latest protests follow the rigged presidential election of Ebrahim Raisi, who is best known for signing off on the murder of thousands of political dissidents in 1988. Scores of Iranian energy sector workers and other regime critics this week began protesting in what observers are calling the most widespread strike in decades.
The protests threaten to undermine the regime as it presses the Biden administration to grant full-scale economic sanctions relief. The Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign crippled Iran's economy and largely created the dire conditions that protesters blame on the government's military campaigns across the Middle East. The State Department, in comments to the Washington Free Beacon, said that the United States is not playing any role in the protests but that it supports those who have taken to the street. The comments reflect the Biden administration's delicate balancing act as it seeks to appease the Iranian government on the one hand while supporting democratic dissidents.
"While the U.S. government is not involved in these protests, the United States believes that the Iranian people should enjoy the universal right to freedom of expression," a State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon. "The Iranian government denies Iranians their human rights, including through severe restrictions on the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of expression."
The State Department also called Raisi's election a sham: "Iranians were denied their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process," the spokesman said.
The comments come as Iranian dissidents and regional observers try to gauge how much support the Biden administration is willing to offer the protesters. The Obama administration came under intense criticism for staying out of a 2009 protest movement in Iran, known as the Green Revolution, that many viewed as an opportunity to topple the hardline regime. While Obama's advisers urged him to back the dissidents, the former president overruled them as part of a bid to placate the regime in the lead-up to the 2015 nuclear deal.
The situation Biden is facing is in many ways a repeat, as well as an early test for his administration as it seeks to reenter the nuclear accord while avoiding the perception that it is abandoning Iran's dissident community. Outgoing Iranian president Hassan Rouhani promised a conciliatory approach to this week's demonstrations, in which energy sector workers at some 60 facilities walked off the job. As Raisi prepares to enter office, it is unclear if he will adopt a similar stance or move to crack down on the workers.
According to the State Department, Raisi's election will not interfere with the Biden administration's diplomacy with Iran in Vienna, where the parties are reportedly getting close to cementing a deal. "From our point of view, [the election] does not affect our determination to try to reach a deal or the pace at which we will go about pursuing it," a senior State Department official told reporters last week.
Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Biden administration's diplomacy will strengthen Raisi's hand as he takes control of the country.
"Unfortunately," Nader said, "the Biden administration may rejoin the [nuclear deal] and provide tens of billions of dollars to Raisi the mass murderer to violently crack down on the population, including the strikers."