Iran Shows No Signs of ‘De-Escalation’

For nearly three years, the operative word in the Biden administration’s approach to Iran has been “de-escalation.” In public statements and private briefings, top advisers to President Joe Biden used the term both descriptively—to characterize the administration’s posture toward the Islamic Republic by contrasting it with the “maximum pressure campaign” employed by the Trump administration—and aspirationally, signaling hope that Iran would respond to the new U.S. approach by dialing back its hostility and engaging more constructively on issues from human rights to the nuclear file.

In a speech last spring on the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan referred to “de-escalation” nearly a dozen times, referring to Iran-U.S. tensions concerning Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Sullivan described a regional strategy of “deterrence and diplomacy” and said that “we’ve had a clear-eyed view of defending our interests, of preventing terrorist threats, of trying to de-escalate tensions, of trying to reduce risks of new conflicts, and of trying to end existing ones.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken sounded a similar note in a press conference in mid-August: “We’ve been clear that Iran must de-escalate to create space for future diplomacy.”

While Biden administration officials have usually been careful not to portray this more conciliatory approach as a panacea, they’ve often expressed guarded optimism that a less aggressive posture toward the Iranian regime by the U.S. could well lead to productive diplomacy on renewing the Iranian nuclear deal and other regional issues. While there have been few signs of change, the recently executed prisoner exchange, which included granting Iran access to $6 billion in previously restricted funds, rekindled optimism among Biden administration officials.

Perhaps not for long.

If the de-escalatory steps by the administration were meant in part to create space for future diplomacy, the Iranians have not only refused to reciprocate in response, they have re-escalated—publicly contradicting Biden officials’ descriptions of the terms of the deal, further limiting already limited cooperation with U.N. nuclear inspectors, harassing journalists on U.S. soil, and stepping up hostile rhetoric toward the U.S.

Last week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi flew to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Raisi’s visit coincided with the release of five wrongfully detained U.S. citizens in exchange for the unfreezing of $6 billion in oil funds and the release of five imprisoned Iranians—a trade critics say incentivizes additional arrests and bankrolls Iran’s lethal activities. The Biden team has insisted that the money will be earmarked for “humanitarian uses,” but the Iranian side is making no such distinctions. In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt this month, Raisi said the money will be spent “wherever we need it.” U.S. officials concede that it may free up funds elsewhere, including toward Iran’s military pursuits.

This aggressive posture continued when Raisi addressed the gathering. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not stop using all the tools and capacities to execute justice and prosecute the perpetrators and managers of this state terrorism until a definite result is achieved,” Raisi said in his speech before the body, vowing revenge for the U.S. strike on  Qassem Suleimani—commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force—in a thinly veiled threat against American citizens. “The blood of the oppressed will not be trampled and it will hunt the oppressor.”

With those words, Raisi seemed to confirm reports of Iran’s ongoing efforts to target Trump administration officials—including former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton—on U.S. soil.

“The most alarming part of Raisi’s speech was his reaffirmed threat to hunt down and kill former U.S. officials—delivered courtesy of a Biden administration-approved visa one day after receiving access to a Biden administration-approved $6 billion,” Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official and senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells TMD. “It was a chilling reminder that Washington is now effectively subsidizing Iran’s terrorism in a flawed attempt to avoid confronting Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities.”

Raisi wasn’t the only one making threats. Iranian International correspondent Kian Amani was twice the target of harassment by Raisi’s delegation. In one encounter outside of the president’s hotel, an Iranian security official charged the journalist, hit his chest, and tried to seize his phone before a hotel security guard intervened. In another, a member of Raisi’s entourage made overt threats to Amani, at one point telling him he “should be trembling with fear until the end of his life” because of his work for the dissident outlet. A State Department official issued a vague statement in response to the incident, condemning the harassment of journalists but not the harassers.

“It took me back to Iran,” Amani, who was arrested and beaten for his previous work as a photojournalist in Iran during the 2009 presidential election, tells The Dispatch. “This is what they are doing in New York. Imagine what they are doing in Iran.”

Iran’s human rights abuses at home were the focus of many non-profit groups and activists during Raisi’s visit but received scant attention from the administration itself. The Iranian delegation’s very presence in the U.S. faced opposition, as protesters called on the State Department to deny entry visas to members of Raisi’s entourage in the lead-up to the trip.

The group of notorious human rights abusers in attendance ultimately included Mojtaba Amini, who led a 2011 siege on the British embassy in Tehran, and Raisi’s chief-of-staff, Gholam-Hossein Esmaili, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and European Union for his efforts to cover up abuses in Iran’s prison system. But Raisi himself drew the most ire from activists. He entered the presidency in 2021 with a blood-stained record of crushing political dissent dating back to the ‘80s and has lived up to his reputation in office, leading Iran’s crackdown on “Women, Life, Freedom” protests.

Raisi’s U.S. tour came on the heels of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death in custody after her arrest by Iran’s morality police last year—the impetus for the nationwide demonstrations, which he referred to in his speech as “the biggest media attack and psychological war in history.” Human rights groups estimate the regime’s violent response was responsible for the death of at least 500 Iranians last year, and it shows no signs of softening. Last week, Iran’s parliament passed a bill increasing the penalties for women who don’t comply with the country’s hijab law, threatening violators with up to 10 years in prison.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, used Raisi’s address to stage a protest in solidarity with the protesters—holding up a sign featuring Amini’s picture and reading “Iranian women deserve freedom now!” Israeli media reported that Erdan was escorted out of the chamber before being briefly detained by U.N. police.

“Erdan very effectively reminded world leaders that they were listening to a brutal murderer, not a peer,” Goldberg says. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was equally cutting in his remarks before the body, denouncing Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and “nuclear blackmail.”

The latter issue dominated the news ahead of Raisi’s visit. Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog—announced that Iran had expelled roughly one-third of the inspectors assigned to its nuclear sites. The “profoundly regrettable” decision affects in a “direct and severe way the ability of the IAEA to conduct effectively its inspections in Iran,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said of the expulsions. Raisi reportedly rebuffed a request by Grossi to meet face-to-face in New York.

“It’s becoming increasingly likely that we’ll wake up one day to discover to our great shock and surprise that Iran has in fact crossed the nuclear rubicon,” John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, tells The Dispatch. “We may well have run out of options to stop an Iranian breakout to the bomb short of launching a risky and dangerous war to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, or at least as much of it as we still can. And that’s an option that almost no country—and certainly not the United States in 2023—wants to contemplate.”

In a rare interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier last week, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman raised the prospect of a region-wide nuclear arms race. If Iran built a nuclear warhead, Saudi Arabia would “have to get one, for security reasons, for balancing power,” the country’s de facto leader said. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program is a “profoundly destabilizing element and one that risks the security of countries not only in the region but well beyond it,” Blinken told reporters on Friday.

“The Iranian regime accomplished its objectives in New York. They wanted to portray themselves as having overcome the protests, as not being isolated, and as actually building relations irrespective of sanctions,” Jason Brodsky, the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, tells TMD. “You can be a sanctioned mass murderer and have a platform at the United Nations, and I think that’s a sad commentary on the United Nations.”

The provocative behavior continued after the Iranian delegation left the U.S. When Raisi returned to Tehran, he attended a parade unveiling what Iranian media claimed to be “the longest-range drone in the world” with a purported range of more than 1,200 miles and flight time of up to 24 hours. Attendees held up signs featuring slogans like “Down with Israel,” “Down with the USA,” and “prepare your shelters.”

“We can teach the people of the region that resistance is today’s way,” the Iranian president said, according to a Reuters translation. “What forces the enemy to retreat is not submission and wavering, but resistance.”

Originally published in The Dispatch.