How Iran's protests could complicate nuclear deal talks
Ever since President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration assumed power last year, US-Iran relations have circled around talks to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
If Tehran fulfils the conditions, a revival of the deal can do away with sanctions and give a rapid boost to its economy.
Though Iran had a thriving economy from 1990 till the 2000s, it has been set back by the global penalties imposed to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. In 2015, the JCPOA provided some relief from sanctions, but then US President Donald Trump walked out of the deal in 2018.
But now, as widespread protests led by women sweep the country following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody, the equation on nuclear talks could be changing.
"The protests are having an undeniable impact on the prospects of the revival of the JCPOA, it is getting more and more difficult for the US and the West to engage the Islamic Republic when protesters are being violently suppressed on the streets"
Spreading to more than 80 cities, including Qom, a stronghold of Muslim clerics who support the authoritarian regime, the demonstrations cut across ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Rampant inflation, spiralling food prices, a devalued currency, and falling living standards have created a potent mix, making the protests uncontainable.
As soon as the demonstrations entered their second month, Washington hardened its stance. The US State Department spokesperson Ned Price announced that nuclear talks were not the focus of Washington’s policy towards Tehran anymore. Instead, supporting the protesters in Iran was the priority.
Two days later, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, met Iranian activists and assured them of Washington’s support, offering to help with internet access issues to escape censorship by the Iranian regime.
Referring to the protests, he stated, “This is grassroots, this is bottom up, this is a reflection of huge frustration and anger towards the direction of their country and their leadership. This is not made in the USA, it's not made anywhere else”.
Since the JCPOA talks had already reached a deadlock, the question now is whether the protests will completely end all prospects of the deal’s renewal.
There are several main aspects to consider.
Firstly, even though previous protests over the decades, including the Green Movement in 2009, had failed to topple the Islamic Republic, this time things look serious and chaos could erupt anytime.
“Undoubtedly, the death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent protests have had and still maintain a strong symbolism,” a European diplomat posted in Islamabad told The New Arab. “It is therefore difficult to talk again about nuclear negotiations with Tehran when the echo of protests is present in the international media.”
Discussing the background, Hamidreza Azizi, a CATS Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, told The New Arab that it is important to take into account that the JCPOA talks were already stalled before the protests began.
“The reason, mainly, was Iran’s desire to get guarantees that the US would not withdraw from the deal once again. Also, the important issue of IAEA safeguards probe, on which Iran apparently failed to provide satisfactory evidence. The current JCPOA talks deadlock has to do more with this agreement that existed before the protests,” Azizi said.
But, he added, “The protests are having an undeniable impact on the prospects of the revival of the JCPOA, it is getting more and more difficult for the US and the West to engage the Islamic Republic when protesters are being violently suppressed on the streets. We have already entered the fifth week, and if the government continues its crackdown on the protestors, it is going to get more difficult even to start negotiating”.
"[Protesters] want a fundamental change in the political system, there are concerns that giving the government sanctions relief at this time would be detrimental for the protests"
Secondly, while critics of the deal would like to abandon it, the JCPOA negotiations still retain importance on a much larger scale.
“Opponents of nuclear negotiations, through their organisations and their influence in the media, have taken the opportunity and are exploiting the situation to try to block any possible return to talks,” the diplomat explained.
“In any case, balancing the necessary contacts with Tehran to restart the deal while maintaining condemnation of the Iranian government for repression of protestors is going to be a difficult task, at least in the short term.”
Recently, the UK, US, and Canada have proactively supported the protesters by announcing sanctions on various senior individuals in the Iranian ‘morality police’.
According to Azizi, “Despite this difficult time, the desire to revive the JCPOA and to block Iran’s nuclear weapon is still there in the West, so if the Islamic Republic feels that it needs breathing space and to mitigate the internal challenge caused by the ongoing protests, if it decides to show some civility on the guarantees issue and the safeguards issue, I suppose at some point, this may change the calculation on the Western side”.
In the diplomat’s assessment, “Only later on, will it be possible to return to talks, when Western powers feel the necessity to approach Tehran and realise that you have to deal with the situation as it is and not as you would like it to be”.
Third, one new complication is the increasingly cordial relations between Tehran and Moscow even as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues. Since most of their bilateral cooperation is in the military sector, this angle could endanger any further progress on the nuclear deal.
“Now there is an imminent security risk coming from Iran, and that is the result of providing drones and military equipment to Russia to continue the invasion of Ukraine,” Azizi said.
“If this cooperation reaches the point that the European side sees Iran playing an instrumental role in European security it would be meaningless to negotiate with Iran only on the nuclear issue, and that would lead to new complexities for the JCPOA.”
Finally, protesters are demanding the overhaul of the regime itself, although it is unclear how this could impact decision-making on nuclear talks.
“They want a fundamental change in the political system, there are concerns that giving the government sanctions relief at this time would be detrimental for the protests and buy back the loyalty of some [segments] of society, they have no JCPOA related demand otherwise,” Azizi said.
"Now there is an imminent security risk coming from Iran, and that is the result of providing drones and military equipment to Russia to continue the invasion of Ukraine"
To regain peace at home, the Raisi administration might have to accept some of the demands of the protesters if it cannot contain the demonstrations.
If the protests and the nuclear deal are dealt with as separate matters, a JCPOA breakthrough could possibly change the situation.
A revival of the deal could de-escalate domestic tensions as well as resolve regional conflicts, plus Tehran could re-engage in oil trade and reclaim its niche in global markets.
In all likelihood though, any further progress on the JCPOA will realistically only be possible after the US mid-term elections in November.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi