By Katya Mavrelli,
In a region that has marginalized and isolated it, Iran is called to stand up for itself once more, being represented by a struggling administration and having to deal with a visibly decisive titan of the West. What does this mean for the Nuclear Deal? Is there even a possibility for a new one? And where does the complex Iranian political network come in?
The word “Iran” conjures up images of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, of the 2009 post-election Green Movement demonstrations, or of the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has magnetized the world with his rhetoric and has carved up his own space in the international sphere. But in the past months, the word brings to mind the intense nuclear deal negotiations that took place in 2015 and led to the signing of the Iran Nuclear Deal.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, later know as JCPOA, was a landmark agreement reached between Iran and the Permanent 5 members of the United Nations Security Council plus one, Germany, in July 2015. It laid the foundations for the control of Iran’s nuclear program, opening up national facilities to rigorous international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief. The deal completed its course around the sun when former US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from it in 2018, leading to the resuming of the program’s development and Iran’s acquisition of uranium. Iran, which had previously agreed to implementing nuclear restrictions, undergoing monitoring and acquiring verification from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), initially abided by its commitment even after the US withdrawal, but the period of selfless commitment came to an end sooner rather than later.
In 2019, Iran started exceeding agreed-upon limits to stockpile enriched uranium and began developing new centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment. It also accelerated heavy water production in Arak and uranium enrichment at Fordow. These moves were a response to Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’, which included sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, on the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company for allegedly funding state-sponsored terrorism.
In 2020, Iran took further steps away from its nuclear commitments as a response to retaliatory actions of the US. In February, after the targeted killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Iran boldly announced it would no longer limit the enrichment or uranium. In October, it started constructing a centrifuge production center at Natanz in order to replace the center that was destroyed following alleged Israeli attacks. Later in November, after the assassination of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the parliament passed a law enabling the further enrichment of uranium at Fordow.
Even before the enactment of the JCPOA, the Iranian economy showed signs of strain, with currency depreciation, high inflation and recession caused by sanctions on its energy sector. Soon after the lifting of the sanctions however, the economy sighed with relief, with a slowdown of recession and partial stabilization of exchange rates. As Iran regained international trust and was no longer regarded as the black sheep of the Middle East, exports skyrocketed and the oil industry boomed. By 2020, oil exports had plummeted to below 300,000 barrels per day and the Iranian rial had lost substantial value. The US sanctions weren’t directed only towards the energy market. Their wide effect included multinational firms, banks and major industries, causing an economic pandemonium and domestic unrest.
And now, after the culmination of the events of the past years, leaders are slowly approaching the negotiation table. The April 2021 Meeting between Iran and other signatories of the nuclear agreement symbolized the inclination of both sides to embrace dialogue, despite the lack of a breakthrough. This time, Tehran appeared more determined and prepared than ever, showing evident signs of unwillingness to return the old status quo, compromise with the West or pass the microphone to domestic forces asking for reform.
This skepticism has been heightened by President Joe Biden’s maneuverings in the White House. So far, no major changes have taken place, and Iran hasn’t started feeling cornered. But the willingness of the US to restart the nuclear deal negotiations, with the backing of the EU and regional players like Israel, makes Iran question its next steps and regard the players as foes and not possible partners. The US has made it clear that it wants a Nuclear Deal 2.0, with extra clauses for curbing Iran’s missile program and limiting its regional expansionist policies.
The internal political divided poses as an extra layer of challenges, apart from the decisiveness of the West. The presidential elections on June 18, 2021, are a sight to behold, which many reformists fear will be dominated by hardliners. The absence of pro-reform voices in a future government will significantly limit Iran’s willingness to open up to the West, even establishing a channel of dialogue, and will make the task of the US, which is to serve as the representative of the new nuclear deal, more complicated.
The stance of both sides is clear: on the one hand, the US wants to revivify the glory of the old nuclear deal and add final tweaks that will westernize Iran. At the same time, Iran’s stance is also clear, with Ayatollah Khamenei suggesting that Iran will comply with all nuclear restrictions supposing all sanctions are lifted. Once satisfied, Iran would roll back to its nuclear advances in 2019, limiting uranium enrichment and pausing the construction of new centrifuge stations. Both seem to be unyielding and far from open to negotiations, which erects rather than dissolves the barriers between them. With the JCPOA being on life support since 2018, and with no clarity in the horizon of bilateral relations between the US and Iran, the deterministic factor that will play a role in the future of the nuclear deal is the outcome of the June elections.
Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, may have been Iran’s best shot at getting back on track, rejoining the international community and gaining some of its prior glory. But to stand in the June pole, he first has to overcome the powerful domestic institutions that weed out any reformist tendencies. Hardliners, who fear that the combination of a reformist Iranian government and a Democratic White House is far from impossible, are complicating matters. And because of the internal power struggle, the Revolutionary Guards will have a stronger say in the upcoming elections and in any negotiations with the Biden Administration.
Iran is faced with a double-edged sword: one the one side there are the strong Western forces, ready to pounce and get involved domestically just like they did in the 1950s and then the 1970s and prepared to lay down the specifics of the second nuclear deal. On the other side, the power struggle between reformists and hardliners prevents Iranians from seeing reality as it is, complicating the significance of elections.
Politics has always served as Iran’s jewel, as the axis around which all aspects of Iranian life revolved. In the choice it has to make now, between seclusion and isolation but protection of national interests, and redefinition of political orientation and acceptance of pro-Western attitudes, the spotlight falls on the generation that will call the shots and will determine Iran’s path for the next years.
- Golnar Motevalli, Arsalan Shahla, Iran, US Inch Toward Nuclear Deal With Sanctions Consensus, Bloomberg, Available here
- Majid Rafizadeh, Iran regime will ensure hardliner wins presidential election, Arab News, Available here