Cindy Rodriguez: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Cindy Rodriguez, in for Tanzina this week. Let's check in now on Iran where a series of recent developments have complicated relations between Iran’s government and the United States. Yesterday, Iranian officials announced that they've started enriching uranium at levels of up to 20% purity. This brings the country's nuclear program closer to how it looked before the 2015 nuclear deal with the US and other global leaders.
Iran also announced this week that its Revolutionary Guard has seized a South Korean tanker. The seizure was done in part to retaliate for the billions of dollars that Iran says South Korea owes its government. Money that has been withheld due to US sanctions. While Iran claims it's willing to reverse both of these decisions, the developments make things much more complicated for the US as our government prepares to transition between presidents. Joining me now to discuss is Golnaz Esfandiari, a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who covers Iran. Thanks for being here, Golnaz.
Golnaz Esfandiari: Thanks for having me, Cindy.
Cindy: Tell us how big of a shift is this latest uranium enrichment policy compared to how Iran's nuclear program has been operating recently?
Golnaz: The 20% enrichment is an increase from about 4% which was set by the 2015 Nuclear Agreement that Iran signed with the Obama administration and other countries, and that President Trump abandoned in 2018. The 20% is basically a breach of this agreement. It brings Iran closer to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium, which I think it requires about 90% purity. What is important to know, this is not a shift it's basically-- since the US left the agreement in May 2018, Iran waited for a year and then it started gradually step by step of violating the agreement and decreasing its commitment.
This seems to be in line with the steps Iran has been taking. I was a bit surprised by this, because the 20% enrichment is a step required by the parliament. The parliament passed the law in December requiring the government to start enriching uranium at 20% immediately. The bill passed by the parliament was opposed by the Iranian government. President Rouhani said that this is detrimental to diplomacy and other Iranian officials also opposed it. They even passed the bylaw to delay this parliament bill. Then, suddenly, they announced that they've started enriching uranium at 20%.
I think what is important also to understand is that Iran seems to be raising the pressure on the upcoming US administration, on the Biden administration. It's trying to gain leverage for potential talks between the two sides.
Cindy: Before we go there, we also mentioned Iran seizure of a South Korean tanker. What was that tanker carrying and why seize it?
Golnaz: I think the tanker was carrying ethanol and the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed that they seized the tanker because it was polluting the water and the Persian Gulf. As you mentioned, it seems to be related to Iranian money that has been withheld in South Korea, in Seoul because of US sanctions. Iran has complained repeatedly that it hasn't been able to access its funds in order to buy humanitarian goods such as medicine and food. Then, a South Korean diplomat was due to travel to Iran to discuss this issue. Then, all of a sudden, we heard from the IRGC that they've seized the South Korean tanker.
Cindy: President Trump has very little time in office. Do you expect his administration to do anything before he leaves when it comes to Iran?
Golnaz: It's very hard to say. President Trump can be unpredictable, as we know. There is concern among Iranian official that the US could launch an attack on an Iranian nuclear sites or do something. It seems that that's not the thinking in the defense departments. US had sent B2 planes and bombers and also a carrier has remained in the Persian Gulf. It seems that it's more to deter Iran from carrying any attack on US forces.
As you know, a few days ago, just a few days, January 3rd was the anniversary of the US drone attack that killed a prominent Iranian general, general Qasem Soleimani who was the head of the Quds Force. The US was concerned that Iranian forces, or the Iran back groups in Iraq would carry out an attack.
Cindy: You mentioned the Biden administration earlier. What do you expect from the Biden administration?
Golnaz: President-elect Biden has said that he's willing to re-enter the 2015 Nuclear Agreement if Iran returns to full compliance. Now, this latest move is aimed as increasing the pressure, but we'll see. I think there's still time for diplomacy because Iran has said that all these steps it has taken so far are reversible. That leaves some time, a few months for the Biden administration, the Rouhani administration to enter in talks and possibly re-enter the nuclear deal.
Cindy: There's also an election coming up in Iran later this year, so that could in as well.
Golnaz: Absolutely. In June, there’s an election and the parliament bill that was passed also seems to be move of the power struggle ahead of the election where the hardliners are expected to do well.
Cindy: All of these developments are happening against the backdrop of the pandemic. What has the COVID-19 response looked like in Iran and what is the country planning in terms of a vaccine rollout?
Golnaz: Iran has been dealing with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the Middle East, probably the deadliest. The first cases were reported back in February, but it seems that it started earlier and that the government did not announce to the people. There was the parliamentary election. It's not clear if they did not tell people because of that. They just announced two deaths just right before the election and they didn't take any measures to protect the people. It got really bad. They also didn't impose strict lockdowns, initially. It spread to the whole country and also to the region.
Their response was very slow. It wasn't transparent, and they basically botched their response, initially. Nowadays, they've imposed tighter restrictions. The number of deaths and infections has dropped significantly, the official number, I must say. Back in November, I think it was every day over 400 people were dying from COVID-19 in Iran. Today, they announced that it dropped to below 198, I think, so that's-- I don't know to what extent we can trust the numbers but if true, it's a big achievement. Officials have been also blaming US sanctions for their slow response saying that they weren't able to impose very tight restrictions because they were afraid that the economy is going to collapse.
The Iranian economy is really in very bad shape due to crippling US sanctions imposed by Trump after the US exited the nuclear deal in 2018.
Cindy: These sanctions, Golnaz, isn't that part of what's holding up the money in South Korea?
Golnaz: They were initially saying that they wanted to access that money in South Korea to buy vaccines, but there were not able to. Then, recently, the Head of the Central Bank said that they got an approval from the US Treasury to send money to a Swiss bank to purchase vaccine. He said there's, I think, sending about $214 million to purchase about 17 million vaccines. He didn't exactly say where the vaccines would come from. But Iranian official have said that they're not probably not going to purchase the Pfizer vaccine, because they said it's too expensive and they also don't have the infrastructure needed for that.
They've also said that they're working on their own vaccine. They started the human trial recently, they inoculated, I think, three people. Then, they did another trial on more people this week and they’ve said that they're fine. The problem, I think, would be that many Iranians would not trust that. Also, even if it's effective, it's going to take several months before they can use that vaccine, if effective, we don't know. Iranians have been very worried actually about having access to vaccines. Just recently, lots of people, including health workers had turned to Twitter to call on the government to buy safe and effective vaccines as soon as possible.
I think they would not also trust Chinese vaccines, and Iran has rather good [unintelligible 00:09:53], so it's not clear if it's going to purchase vaccines from China.
Cindy: It sounds like the Iranian people are
really struggling with COVID-19, as is the rest of the world. Let's talk about the Biden administration again. What do Biden's foreign policy cabinet appointments tell us about how they might negotiate with Iran?
Golnaz: President-elect Biden and Iran's foreign minister have met. Iranian foreign minister said in an interview that when he was the Iranian Envoy to the UN that he had meetings with Biden and others. They know each other, not well, but at least they’ve probably talked. Other people on the Biden team, including Jake Sullivan and others-- John Kerry-- they know it, they’ve been involved in the nuclear negotiation, Tony Blinken and others. That probably is going to make it easier to deal with the Iranians to restart negotiation, to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal.
It's going to be very difficult, I think, on both sides; there are the internal politics. There's going to be pressure on the Biden administration to keep the sanctions. Iran has said that the sanctions have to be removed. Then, another thing that's-- I don't know how it's going to work, is the sequence. How they're going to do that is-- I don't think the future administration is going to just remove sanctions. They're going to want Iran to go back to full compliance under the nuclear deal, then probably lift sanctions. It's not going to be easy, but as I said earlier, I think there's still time for diplomacy. I think both sides think that it's in their best interest to re-enter the nuclear deal.
Now, the Biden administration has said that it wants to re-enter the nuclear deal and then build on it for a follow-on agreement or negotiations. That would include issues such as Iran's regional activities and also missile program. Iran has said repeatedly that it's not going to negotiate over its missile program. That's controlled by the hard IRGC, and I don't see them being ready to compromise. We have to wait and see. The time, it’s going to be a short time. Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th and then, Iran will have its June election. It's not also exactly clear how that's going to affect talks with the US.
It's probably going to be easier for Biden to enter into negotiations with the Rouhani administration because they already know each other from talks that they held under President Obama.
Cindy: Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who covers Iran. Golnaz, thank you so much.
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