Written by Hafssa Fakher Elabiari
On September 16th, 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Jina Amini died, allegedly due to torture, in the hands of the Tehran’s morality police Mahsa, who had travelled to Tehran from Saqqez for a family visit, was arrested because her attire did not respect the government’s dress code. According to the latter, women are required to cover their hair and body, and the failure to comply with these requirements results in random arrests and, occasionally, torture (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Three days after her detention, Mahsa was pronounced dead. The authorities claimed that Mahsa died of a heart attack and failed to open an objective investigation to back up their claims (Amnesty International, 2022). Subsequently, hundreds of Iranian people, especially women, flooded the streets to protest the young woman’s killing. Pictures and footage of women taking off their headscarves, setting their headscarves on fire, cutting their hair, and chanting freedom slogans to end gender segregation and discrimination invaded social media. Notably, slogans such as “women, life, freedom,” “death to the dictator” and “no to the Islamic Republic” left international audiences, notably in the Western world, open-mouthed (Berger, 2022). Officials in many Western countries like France and the United States expressed their support for Iranian women’s quest for freedom. Also, members of Western civil society reiterated their support and admiration for Iranian women. However, for Iranians, the images of protests, police firing teargas, and dead bodies are neither new nor extraordinary. The 2009 movement and the 2017-18 protests bring vivid memories.
Three months after Mahsa’s death, the nationwide protests continued, but they quickly developed from lifting the compulsion of hijab to demanding a decent economic situation, and most importantly, calling for regime change. However, the regime is not making any concessions or opening dialogue channels with the Iranian people. Contrarily, it is launching a string of executions and arrests of people allegedly linked to the demonstrations. According to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights group, the death toll, which includes women and children, surpasses 476 (2022). Moreover, the demonstrations have acquired an international dimension because they coincide with external events. First, Ukraine has provided evidence showing that Iran supplies Russia with drones to use in Ukraine (Bakir & Ipek, 2022), but the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refused to open an investigation on that matter (Security Council, 2022). Second, nuclear negotiations stall, and the odds of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are currently low.
Accordingly, the European Union (EU) and its North American allies need to tackle many files but with few options. This article analyses the factors that inhibit the progress of nuclear negotiations between Iran, the EU and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). I argue that the Iranian protests, the war in Ukraine, and Israel’s anti-JCPOA stance explain, in part, the stalling of nuclear negotiations. I first provide a brief overview of relevant JCPOA-related developments. I then analyse the link between the demonstrations, the war in Ukraine, and Western sanctions. Finally, I shed light on Israel’s different manoeuvres to hinder nuclear progress.
The Nuclear Deal: Hope amid Tensions
In July 2015, Iran, the EU, and P5+1 signed the JCPOA in Vienna, after years of difficult negotiations. Generally, the deal aimed at containing Iran’s nuclear activity and arms behaviour in exchange for sanction relief (Robinson, 2022). All went well until May 2018 when the United States, a country that had supported Iran’s nuclear ambitions during the Shah’s time (Mousavian & Mousavian, 2018), unilaterally withdrew from the accords. Despite Iran’s compliance, former President Donald Trump claimed that the deal was flawed and did not properly deal with Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behaviour (White House, 2018). In November, the US adopted a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran by reinstating tough sanctions on various entities and individuals (US Department of the Treasury, 2018). Moreover, it attempted to pressure the EU to follow suit, but the latter vowed its support for the nuclear accord and condemned Washington’s unwarranted reneging (EU External Action, 2018). Indeed, Iran had until then compiled with the JCPOA’s provisions, but starting in 2019, it ramped up Uranium enrichment beyond the 3.67% limit set in the deal (Robinson, 2022). According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the current enrichment rate is at 60%; 90% being the necessary rate for a nuclear weapon (2022). Of course, the assassinations of General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020 contributed to scaling up Uranium enrichment.
While these developments weakened the prospects of reviving the nuclear deal, Joseph Biden’s arrival to the US presidency brought some optimism. In fact, the Democratic president expressed his country’s willingness to re-join the JCPOA, but only if Iran renews its commitment. For Iran, Washington’s demand was unjustified because it was clear which party breached the deal. Nevertheless, Iran is still interested in the deal. While that gave a glimpse of hope, the current demonstrations in Iran and Iran’s alleged involvement in the Ukrainian war make it difficult for the signatories to revive the deal.
Demonstrations in Iran and External Support
Since the eruption of protests, Western countries have voiced their support for the demonstrations. While some have supported women’s choice of attire, others extended their support to all the Iranian people. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron (2022) clearly condemned the regime’s crackdown. He also hosted Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad at the Elysée Palace, along with other women activists. Similarly, US President Biden followed suit by supporting the bravery of Iranian citizens and urging the Iranian regime to cease violence against protesters (White House, 2022). Furthermore, the US imposed the first batch of sanctions on Iran in September, followed by the EU in October. The sanctions, consisting of a travel ban and asset freeze, targeted 158 individuals and entities, notably the morality police, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the English-language television broadcaster Press TV (US Department of the Treasury, 2022; European Council, 2022).
Although the Iranian regime is powerful, mainly due to the support of its Russian and Chinese peers, sanctions do strangulate it. For example, Putin paid his second foreign visit since the onset of the war in Ukraine to Iran, where he discussed numerous files with his Iranian counterpart, notably the solutions needed to circumvent Western sanctions (Khorrami, 2022). Later on, Gazprom and the National Iranian Gas Company signed a deal to invest $40 billion in the Iranian oil sector; In exchange, Iran would export different automotive parts to Russia (Khorrami, 2022). The same logic applies to China because Beijing would not let the Iranian regime fall despite occasional frictions (Motamedi, 2022). In 2021, the conclusion of the so-called 25-year strategic cooperation agreement signalled the beginning of a much deeper phase of Chinese-Iranian relations (Vaisi, 2022). That being said, the presence of Russia and China prevents the Iranian regime from crumbling but does not make it immune to sanctions. With sanctions, targeted or comprehensive, Iran’s access to health, development, and food security shrinks (SIPRI, 2016). Interestingly, Iranian citizens are often the scapegoat for the regime’s wrongdoings (Gorji, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2019). Moreover, the many protests (e.g., 2017-18), triggered by poor economic conditions, have in part been due to sanctions. Of course, claiming that sanctions are the sole reason behind skyrocketing inflation rates and low purchasing power would be over simplistic and inaccurate because corruption and nepotism are widespread in the Iranian structure. However, for the Iranian regime, supporting the protests means meddling in Iran’s internal affairs and looking to cause unrest. Accordingly, Tehran sanctioned several EU politicians, non-governmental organisations, and media outlets, notably EU parliament members and media outlets such as Deutsche Welle Persian and different European NGOs (Mehdi, 2022).
Aside from sanctions, external support for the Iranian people also translated into suspending Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women. The latter is a part of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The voting parties, notably the United States, insisted that the Iranian regime’s alleged killing of Mahsa and subsequent crackdown on protesters does not align with the Commission’s values and objectives (White House, 2022). Finally, it goes without saying that Iran’s human rights violations’ impact risked tarnishing had no action been taken.
Another Batch of Sanctions
Since October, the EU and the United States imposed several sanctions on Iran for its supply of armed drones to Russia to use in Ukraine. It is believed that Russia has been using three types of Iranian drones in Ukraine: Mohajer-6, Shahed-131 (Geran-1 in Russian), and Shahed-136 (Geran-2 in Russian) since August 2022 (Albright et al., 2022). Yet, the Iranian government, particularly foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, posited that Iran had not provided any weapons for Russian use in Ukraine (Pronczuk, 2022). However, American intelligence asserts that Russian officials had visited the Kashan airbase and backed its claim with satellite images (Bakir & Ipek, 2022). It also maintains that IRGC members visited Crimea to assist Russia in solving some Iranian drone-related problems (Bakir & Ipek, 2022). Later, Iran admitted sending drones but asserted that was prior to the eruption of the war in Ukraine. However, the Ukrainian army claims to have found contradictory evidence of that claim, mainly that a propeller dates back to February 2022 (Koshiw, 2022).
Iranian drones are cheap and pose a tremendous risk to Ukraine’s infrastructure and civilians (Albright et al., 2022), and countries that oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine are aware of that. Accordingly, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States claim that Iran is violating UNSC resolution 2231 because, for them, the resolution prohibits Iran from purchasing and supplying ballistic missiles and armed drones whose range is at least 300 km and the payload is at least 500 kg without permission from the UNSC (until October 2023) (Wood, 2022). Moreover, the United States and the EU urged the UN to open an investigation on that matter. However, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres does not have the jurisdiction to deploy a UN-led investigation team without approval from the Security Council where Russia holds veto power. Furthermore, in October, Russia’s permanent representative at the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy threatened to re-evaluate his country’s collaboration with Guterres if the latter ‘illegitimately’ sends an investigation team (Wintour, 2022). Consequently, the United States said that Guterres is yielding to Russia’s threat (Nichols, 2022). Clearly, the situation is complex.
A very Delicate Situation
The signatories of the nuclear deal, including Iran, are interested in reviving the talks. However, the international atmosphere is tense and does not allow that. It is unlikely that Iranian officials would sit at the negotiation table amid all the sanctions imposed on their country. It is also unlikely that they would go for complete abandonment. That being said, the chances of reviving the deal hinge in part on the progression of the demonstrations, the attitude of the Iranian regime vis-à-vis civilians, but also the evolution of the drone file.
Another aspect of why the international context is tense is that Israel does not want Iran, the P5+1 and the EU to revive nuclear talks. Israel has long tried to obstruct the trajectory of nuclear negotiations before the conclusion of the JCPOA, and its powerful lobby in the US, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has exerted tremendous pressure on the American policy sphere (Samuels, 2022). In fact, Israel believes that a nuclear Iran threatens its national security, or as Benjamin Netanyahu puts it, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are an “extraordinary threat” to Israel’s existence (I24 News English, 2022). Here, nuclear energy alters the regional balance of power and Israel and its powerful Western allies do not stand a nuclear Iran.
Second, AIPAC has been working hard since the pre-JCPOA era. It is believed that AIPAC’s Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran spent between $20 and $40 million to stop the deal (Beinart, 2022). Also, the lobby celebrated the US withdrawal from the JCPOA (Beinart, 2022). Although AIPAC failed to impede the accords’ conclusion, it continues to lobby to prevent reviving it. For example, in 2020, AIPAC tried to push the UNSC to adopt a resolution aimed at renewing the arms embargo expiring in October 2023 under Resolution 2231 (Harris, 2020). Under the new far-right government of Netanyahu, Israel, a country that does not compromise on its national interest, is likely to multiply its operational and political manoeuvres to reverse any positive efforts toward the deal. Here, the means can range from lobbying to covert confrontation through Mossad. Note that in 2020, Mossad orchestrated the assassination of Fakhrizadeh in Absard.
In Iran, the structure of domestic politics is another challenge for the accord’s prospects. The supreme leader of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, amasses tremendous power and has a near-monopoly over decision-making. The rationale behind that is that in Iran, political authority stems from religious authority, and a religious leader is the one who should rule the country (Takeyh, 2022). That being said, the president is the head of government and his functions consist of leading the country as per the supreme leader’s decisions. This structure, in what seems to be an oligarchy, is extremely complex. Regarding the nuclear deal, Khamenei has the final say over the way Iran proceeds. Unsurprisingly, he approved the provisions of the deal (Takeyh, 2022). So, president Raisi, despite the fact that he is a hardliner compared to his moderate predecessor, is open to reviving the nuclear accord, but not amid the draconian measures instated on Iran, including sanctions and the blacklisting of the IRGC. Here, the idea is that sanctions strangulate Iran and deprive it of billions of dollars. Contrarily, Raisi’s mandate objectives (e.g., the creation of employment opportunities) can be achieved in the event of sanctions relief or if Iran makes the sanctions obsolete. So, although some pundits describe Raisi as Khamenei’s protégé because his ideology closely matches Khamenei’s (Williams, 2022), it is difficult to say that his will be translated into Iran’s behaviour on the nuclear accord file, especially because Khamenei has always been critical of the US, more particularly since Trump’s unilateral withdrawal and Biden’s support of Iranian demonstrations.
In conclusion, the prospects of a JCPOA salvation no longer hinge on the willingness of signatories alone. The signatories are trapped in a never-ending spiral of pointing fingers at who is behind the delay, and this is somehow understandable. However, the current international atmosphere and the complexities it presents are strong explanatory factors. Over the past months, reviving nuclear negotiations has proven impossible, and the Iranian demonstrations and Tehran’s drone supply add water to the mud. In fact, the death of Mahsa and the support of Western countries for Iranians through statements and sanctions shook the already-wobbling relations between Iran and many Western countries. It also intensified the Iranian regime’s propaganda against Western countries. Moreover, Iran’s supply of armed drones to Russia to target Ukraine’s infrastructure is a red line for the EU, the US and Canada. At the same time, Israel’s continuous attempts to spoil negotiations pose a tremendous threat to the survival of the deal. For Israel, the current conjuncture is not to be missed. Also, the uncertainty around the upcoming American administration adds more complexity because a republican administration would risk pushing Washington to call negotiations off, even if the remaining parties remain interested.
Facing this conundrum, it is unlikely that Iran would accept sitting at the negotiation table amid the strangulating restrictions imposed on it. Consequently, some might say that Western countries can backpedal their support for the Iranian protests in order to save the deal, but this would be morally incorrect. Others might posit that JCPOA Western signatories should choose between standing with the Iranian people in their fight for justice and freedom, and prioritising the nuclear deal. However, if Western countries are genuinely interested in human rights in Iran, then supporting protests and salvaging the accords are two lines that meet at one point. Sanctions are one of the many reasons why precarity prevails in many parts of Iran. Indeed, they lower people’s purchasing power, contribute to rising inflation rates and prevent the development of job opportunities. Easing sanctions (as per the JCPOA’s provisions) on Iran will not solve these problems, but it will slightly improve people’s lives.
Second, freezing nuclear negotiations is wise, but in the long term, it will be deleterious because it risks rendering a crucial deal obsolete. Hence, JCPOA’s Western signatories should avoid reaching the stage when the trade-off is no longer attractive. They should also be wary of spoilers. The US and Israel are allies, and the latter is Washington’s gendarme in the Middle East. However, their positions differ on the nuclear file. Hence, the US should not let the Israeli lobby divert its attention from the deal in any way. The JCPOA is not perfect, and no deal is, but rescuing it will make everyone better off.