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Can Iran nuclear deal be saved amid deadly protests?

  • Ted Regencia
  • Shereena Qazi
  • 9 Nov 2022

Experts and Tehran-watchers say the public uprising and Iranian government’s violent crackdown have potentially killed any prospect of putting the negotiations back on track.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with a group of students in Tehran on November 2, 2022. ( Reuters )

It has been almost eight weeks since unprecedented protests first shook the foundations of the 43-year-old Islamic Republic of Iran.

With police brutality and violence engulfing the country, many observers say the hope of reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – commonly known as the US-Iran nuclear deal – is dismal, adding that international opinion towards Tehran has further soured. 

The turmoil has also cornered proponents for diplomacy, with their voices drowned out by the prevailing rhetoric of confrontation.

Questions are now being asked whether it is still realistic for negotiations to continue given the level of enmity between the US and Iran. 

But others warned that the alternative to scrapping the talks could be much worse.

READ MORE: What are the hurdles in the way of Iran nuclear deal?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement, is a historic deal between Iran and other superpowers, notably the United States, in July 2015.

Under the deal, Iran consented to destroy a large portion of its nuclear programme and permit more thorough international inspections of its facilities in exchange for sanctions relief worth billions of dollars.

Protests and crackdown

The latest wave of protests started in mid-September as a campaign against compulsory wearing of the hijab – following the suspicious death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in custody of Iran’s controversial ‘moral police’. 

Since then, it has evolved into a movement for more freedom for ordinary Iranians.

From the centre of power in capital Tehran to the country’s peripheries as far as Sistan and Baluchestan in the southeast, Zanjan in the northwest, and many points in between, people have taken to the streets in large numbers. 

Even in the religious strongholds of Mashhad and Qom, students have been reported to lead anti-government demonstrations.

The consequences of the unrest have been deadly, with more than 300 people reported killed, according to the latest UN Watch data. 

More than 5,000 have also been injured and over 14,000 detained.

Despite the threat of more violence, protesters are hardening their resolve to fight – not for the absence of fear but for the lack of other options to express their grievances. Images of their defiance have been transmitted on social media and drawing support worldwide. 

In response, security forces have escalated the crackdown, deploying more troops who are firing at unarmed civilians and detaining more protesters, plunging the nation deeper into collective despair and political uncertainty.

A young businessman from the city of Karaj near Tehran tells TRT World how he rushed to the hospital a 16-year-old boy, who was shot in the eye by government forces.

“It was a very painful scene. He was still carrying his school bag on his shoulder. He’s just a student,” he says. “We are very sad and angry.”  

Unclear deal

Sina Toossi, a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington DC, tells TRT World that the protests as well as Iran’s military support for Russia in its war against Ukraine have “diminished prospects” for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Still, a diplomatic, and not a military solution, to the Iran nuclear crisis “is still in the interests of all sides,” Toossi says.

He says that the Biden administration’s move to resuscitate the nuclear deal reflects the president’s goal to “peacefully resolve this nuclear crisis”.

READ MORE: Iran should drop unacceptable demands for nuclear deal - US

Saeed Jalili, an independent political analyst and former journalist of the Tehran-based Financial Tribune, also feels that the revival of the JCPOA  is “unlikely” as the US would not be able to advocate talks amid public pressure over the protests.

“As long as the protests are alive the JCPOA should be considered dead,” he tells TRT World.

“If you are asking me, nobody should make a deal with a regime that openly and systematically kills dissidents and uses torture, rape and all sorts of inhumane practices against protesters.”

Jalili agrees with Toossi’s observation that the Russia factor is also in play in the dynamics of the negotiation.

“Given the invasion of Ukraine, there is still debate among some analysts whether Russia actually supports a deal that would lead to the easing of financial restrictions on Iran,” Jalili says.

He admits that in the “distant past” he too had hoped the original 2015 deal could pave the way for more reforms within the country. But his optimism has since been dashed. He left the country in recent weeks just as the protests erupted.

“So much has happened in the past few years, which made many Iranians reconsider the idea that any positive change could come out of the [Iranian] regime’s dealings with the outside world,” he adds, citing as examples the deadly protests in November 2019 and the accidental shooting of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020.

Then-US president Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to withdraw from the deal and reimpose economic sanctions on Iran did not help either, hurting ordinary citizens the most while empowering hardliners, who have long argued that Washington DC could not be trusted with an agreement.

While everything is still possible in politics, the chances to revive the nuclear deal “are low”, according to Fereshteh Sadeghi, a Tehran-based analyst. 

She points to the statement of US special envoy Robert Malley, who said recently that negotiations “are not on the US agenda” at the moment.

Even if the protesters “did not intend” to complicate the talks, it is clear that the situation has affected the process, says Sadeghi, a staunch defender of the government’s response to the protests.

She recalls how the post-election protests in 2009 also shaped the relationship between Iran and the US at that period.

“With demonstrations dragging on and turning into violence, the US imposed further sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions prompted the Iranian government to retaliate by expanding its nuclear program,” she says, recalling the pro-democracy protest known as the Green Movement.

“As long as the US wants to impose its own will on Iran, it can’t reach anywhere, because Iran has had a bad experience in 2018, and it wants to see promises accompanied with actions. If that doesn't happen, then we can assume attempts to reinstate the deal are futile,” she says.

Following the most recent protests, the European Union is also weighing more sanctions on Iran, “and that would further complicate the matter of the nuclear deal”, adds Sadeghi.

Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a University of Tehran political analyst and defender of the Iranian government, has taken a harsher tone on the protesters, blaming them and their foreign backers for the instability.

READ MORE: What’s the holdup in Iran nuclear deal?

Marandi also claims that protesters “are small in numbers”, contradicting images showing large protests in major Iranian cities, including in Saqez in Kurdistan province, the hometown of Mahsa Amini.

“This Western behaviour will only make the Iranians more determined not to give more concessions at the negotiating table” should the talks continue, he tells TRT World.

For Catherine Perez-Shakdam, a political analyst who once interviewed Ibrahim Raisi before he became president, Tehran has “lost all legitimacy” to negotiate a deal. 

“The regime’s propensity to use violence against unarmed civilians and the target women and children, in particular, has made it impossible for state officials to rationalise a return to the negotiating table,” she tells TRT World.

“This is not to say that the JCPOA is dead – Washington for example made it rather clear that it still believes a nuclear deal is feasible and needed, but not right now and not under such a political climate,” Perez-Shakdam adds.

But even before the protests, talks had already stalled, according to Toossi of the Center for International Policy.

“Before the protests, it did not seem that hardline Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi was willing to go back to the original nuclear deal that it believed would not last past the Biden administration,” he says, referring to the current US president.

He points out that Iran’s nuclear programme has already “expanded significantly” since Trump reneged on the deal, warning that Iranian leaders “are now positioned to amass enough fissile material for multiple nuclear bombs in a short amount of time if they make the decision to do so".

“While the negotiations have been discontinued for some time, the US and its global partners should still seek to strike a diplomatic settlement to end the proliferation risk of Iran's nuclear program,” he adds.

Toossi says that if the original deal is no longer viable, “which looks to be the case”, then a smaller deal “that at least downgrades the Iranian nuclear programme would be a favourable alternative for the time being”.

“If reviving the 2015 deal, or another similar alternative, is taken off the table, then the diplomatic window will be closed. This will only leave military options, which would be self-defeating for the US and destructive for the Iranian people above all.”

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