June 21 (UPI) -- In Iran, more than 315,000 people have died of COVID-19, although the theocratic regime claims the true figure is 82,000. The Iranian economy is in free fall. Some 75% of the population struggle to survive on income that has crashed below the international poverty line and yet the Tehran Times last week claimed that the economy is going to "rebound in 2022."
In the bizarre fantasy world of Iranian politics, torturers and mass murderers can become president, as the world has seen with the election of Ebrahim Raisi, blacklisted in the United States and European Union for his serial abuse of human rights. Vying for the "stranger than fiction" Academy Award, the regime's state-run international TV channel Iran Press TV claims ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the deeply flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, are designed to bring "the U.S. back to compliance." As Mark Twain once famously said, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
In Vienna, the nuclear talks have entered their fifth round, with Iran's allies Russia and China calling for a swift resolution. Russia's representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, claims an agreement is within reach, while China's Ambassador Wabg Qun has called for the United States "to stop shilly-shallying by moving decisively to complete and thorough sanction-lifting."
For Russia and China, ending sanctions and rebooting the nuclear deal is strategically important, enhancing their influence in the Middle East, while undermining the West. The Russians have kept the civil war in Syria going for more than a decade by siding with the Iranian regime in backing Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, China has signed a 25-year $400 billion "Belt & Road" deal with the mullahs, to bypass sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure campaign," effectively turning Iran into a client state. It would be a grave, historical error were the Biden administration to fall for this deception. They would breathe life into the decaying corpse of the mullahs' fascist dictatorship.
Far from restoring U.S. compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, the mullahs have openly boasted of their own repeated breaches of the deal. They claim to have enriched uranium to 60% fissile purity, a fraction short of weapons grade, in blatant contravention of the agreement. They have denied site access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly to locations where uranium traces have been found.
Despite clear evidence that the mullahs are continuing secretly to construct a nuclear device and ballistic missiles capable of carrying a primed nuclear warhead, the United States and EU remain ludicrously committed to reinstating the JCPOA without demanding an end to the clerical regime's destabilizing activities in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq and insisting on an end to repression, torture and executions in Iran. U.S. and EU attempts at appeasement have simply encouraged the mullahs to further aggressive behavior at home and abroad.
New evidence has been revealed by the main democratic opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has uncovered unusual activity at the Sanjarian nuclear site, 25 miles from Tehran. Satellite images have indicated that covert excavation work has again been undertaken on the site and a new access road has been constructed. The NCRI first revealed the existence of a clandestine nuclear program to the world in 2003, wrong-footing Western intelligence agencies who had failed to unearth the threat.
On May 7, 2019, David Albright, the IAEA's Action Team associate (1992-97) and the first non-governmental inspector of Iraq's nuclear program, and Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's operations director (1995-2005), published their joint research about Tehran's nuclear activities at Sanjarian. They stated: "This site was first publicly identified in 2009 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which called it the 'Research Center for Explosion and Impact' near Sanjarian, known under its Farsi language abbreviation METFAZ. The NCRI stated that this site was developing high-explosive detonators for use in atomic bombs and manufacturing components for these detonation systems."
In May 2019, Yukio Amano, the late IAEA director-general, complained that the regime was refusing the U.N. nuclear watchdog access to the Sanjarian site. The IAEA's new director-general Rafael Grossi, has echoed his predecessor's complaints. He told a meeting of the agency's board of governors on June 7, "The lack of progress in clarifying the agency's questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran's safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the IAEA to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
Grossi's frustration with the mullahs' continuing secrecy should sound the alarm bells for U.S. President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken. For the past 20 years, the United States and EU have tried repeatedly to curtail the theocratic regime's provocative nuclear projects, but the mullahs have responded by cheating and concealing their activities. It is clear that the Iranian regime has never stopped its race to develop a nuclear weapon, before, during and after it signed former U.S. President Barack Obama's flawed JCPOA in 2015. For the mullahs, a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile system capable of delivering it, is a way of holding the West to ransom and a key survival strategy.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be stroking his beard in satisfaction at the departure of his sworn enemy, Benjamin Netanyahu. He will be hoping that Israel's new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, will be easier to browbeat. For all his flaws, Netanyahu was savvy with the international military and geopolitical situation and would never tolerate the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran.
On June 7, Blinken expressed his dismay at the mullahs' nuclear program, stating, "It remains unclear whether Iran is willing and prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance. Meanwhile, its program is galloping forward.... The longer this goes on, the more the breakout time gets down."
It seems clear that the clerical regime is intent on buying time, by keeping negotiations on the JCPOA at arms length in Vienna, obstructing the IAEA, while at the same time accelerating its sprint to build a nuclear bomb. By demanding the lifting of all sanctions, the mullahs are attempting to blackmail the West into ignoring its nuclear ambitions, its domestic oppression and its export of terrorism and aggressive expansionism in the region.
Biden and Blinken must realize that the mullahs will always regard attempts at appeasement as a weakness by the West, which they will exploit mercilessly. The theocratic dictatorship only responds to firmness, and it is time for the United States and EU to show some muscle.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.