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How can the U.S. support protesters in Iran? Activists want a pause in nuclear talks


President Biden says he stands with the women of Iran and anti-government protesters. Activists say the U.S. could do more and pull out of the nuclear talks with Iran. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When the Obama administration negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran, it faced a lot of criticism for being too hesitant to support Iranian street protests that were crushed by the regime. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says U.S. officials learned a lesson. And he calls it a no-brainer to support Iranians demanding basic rights now.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: This is one of those black-and-white issues in international relations, which doesn't come along very often.

KELEMEN: But the U.S. is still being too timid, says Hadi Ghaemi, who runs the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.

HADI GHAEMI: The entire administration's Iran policy has been just about the nuclear negotiations. And I think now they're caught a little bit flatfooted on how to react.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration has been trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which capped Iran's program in exchange for sanctions relief before the Trump administration pulled out. Ghaemi says his sources are worried about the Iranian government getting sanctions relief now as it cracks down on protesters with increasing brutality.

GHAEMI: Of course, we all want to see Iran's nuclear activities come under control. But at the same time, a huge infusion of cash to this government at this moment, I believe, is the wrong policy.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it's appalled by Iran's crackdown on protesters and is imposing targeted sanctions. The Biden administration is also allowing U.S. tech companies to provide messaging services and other software to Iranians.

GISSOU NIA: It's a welcome move. But it's coming, you know, years after we've been repeating this call.

KELEMEN: That's Iranian American human rights lawyer Gissou Nia, who's with the Atlantic Council in Washington. She's long complained that U.S. sanctions have made it harder for Iranians to freely use the internet.

NIA: Some of them require a paid subscription. Iranians don't necessarily have credit cards that are connected to the global financial system to be able to subscribe. So really, what I'd like to see happen is that the U.S. government try to ensure that these services could be offered without cost.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. could also lead the way at the United Nations to set up a mechanism like the ones tracking abuses in Syria and Myanmar.

NIA: Those bodies are meant to document these violations, ensure that evidence is preserved and admissible in a courtroom.

KELEMEN: That's for future accountability. For now, it's hard for anyone to predict how the protests will play out. Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment says either the regime crushes this movement and stays in power or the protesters manage to change the regime.

SADJADPOUR: There is this huge disconnect between a regime which is ruled by old, traditional men and a society which is overwhelmingly young, modern people who have a fundamentally different vision for Iran. They want to be like South Korea, not North Korea.

KELEMEN: On one issue important to the U.S., there was a little movement today when Iran allowed an elderly U.S. citizen, Baquer Namazi, to leave the country for surgery. His son is still held in Iran. In the bigger picture, Sadjadpour says, the U.S. has to approach Iran as it did the Soviet Union, supporting dissidents even as the two sides negotiated arms deals.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.