Iran has long been dallying at the crossroads between reform and isolation. Four years ago, the country’s future seemed decided. That was when the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was reached in 2015 between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and The European Union.Among the deal’s key conditions are the calls for strictly peaceful uses of Iran’s developed nuclear programme. This means that nuclear weapons under no circumstances are to be allowed to be constructed, and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shall monitor the actions stated in the JCPOA.
The background to the establishment of the nuclear deal is based in the revealing of the secret uranium enrichment program developed by Iran in 2002. According to the BBC, the program violated the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international treaty established by the United Nations (UN) for the disarmament of nuclear weapons, which The Islamic Republic had signed in 1970. Consequently, sanctions were imposed by the UN, the European Union and The United States, which included blocked supply of nuclear-related technology, the freezing of assets and bans on the country’s export of crude oil. As Iran made amends by decreasing their uranium reserves by 98 %, most of the sanctions were lifted, although some still remain intact. Eventually, these negotiations still led to the adoption of the JCPOA in 2015.
The deal led to an era of optimism in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani stated himself that the treaty was an opportunity to start a new chapter for the nation. Perhaps most importantly was the hopefulness the deal instilled in the young reformist movement. They now began to hope that Rouhani’s regime would start to listen to their demands for economic and social reforms.
Likewise, this positive attitude for Iran’s future was shared by many others. The Obama administration saw the deal as a stepping stone for influence from reformers in Iran. And in an article from the Washington Post, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Francois Hollande jointly proclaimed: “We are confident that the agreement provides the foundation for resolving the conflict on Iran’s nuclear program permanently.”
Undoubtedly, the lifting of sanctions and a recovering economy led to the beliefs of optimists for a clearly brighter status for Iran on the international arena. The political landscape has, however, changed drastically since then.
In recent months, U.S. President Donald J. Trump has persistently been criticizing the deal with The Islamic Republic, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated”. Writing for Al Jazeera, dr Massoumeh Torufeh from London School of Economics, summarizes Trump’s criticism in three specific points.
Firstly, she points out that although the JCPOA states that no nuclear weapons are to be developed by Iran, this does not include long-range, ballistic missiles. Trump has been suggesting an additional agreement that includes these long-range missiles as well. Secondly, he requests stronger inspections from the IAEA, who are not allowed to tread freely on Iranian military sites without being allowed access. Thirdly, Trump condemns the “sunset clause” which states that the limits implemented on Iran’s nuclear power will expire 10 years after the adoption day of the treaty.
According to the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, Trump also denounced Teheran for violating the spirit of the deal through its unchanged interior politics. The Revolutionary Guard still remains in place in order to secure the regime’s survival and its authoritarian policies towards its own people.
This rhetoric has met an increasingly frustrated response from Teheran. Accusations against President Trump for pestering the debate’s atmosphere have come from the Deputy Foreign Minister of Political Affairs, Abbas Araghchi. In addition, he made it clear on February 22nd in the Chatham House in London, that Iran has strictly followed the terms set out in the deal. The IAEA confirms this view, by reporting that the allowed amounts of uranium are not exceeded.
Araghchi continued to state that Iran will not remain as a party in a deal that robs them from all promised benefits. This argument is based on the remaining sanctions imposed against the country from the U.S. and the EU, and the hesitation from companies and banks to invest in the Iranian business sector.
These renewed tensions where Washington and Teheran continue to pull opposite ways, ultimately leaves the Islamic Republic in a tricky situation. Risking facing increased sanctions from the U.S. has created further frustration in Iran. Following in the wake of the remaining sanctions, a stagnating economy with youth unemployment over 12 percent, caused massive protests across the country. The protesters also criticized the foreign policy of the regime, including the economic support to armed groups in Gaza and Lebanon and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Initially taking place in the city of Mashhad, the manifestations spread rapidly across the country, reaching over 70 communities and towns as reported by The Economist. The protesters, many of them young people, faced direct actions from the authorities. This lead to over 20 deaths and hundreds of arrests, as well as the shutdown of messaging apps and social media sites.
Dr Torufeh states that this is putting additional pressure on Rouhani’s government on improving the economy. And if the sanctions continue to hamper the Iranian economy, this would strongly affect Teheran’s willingness to keep to the JCPOA.
The question is how the regime will respond to these issues. Eventually, they could give way for the pressure, keep to the deal and listen to the young reformists’ calls for a better economy and decreased repression. This could prove positive for the continuation of the nuclear deal and also stand as a show of goodwill to the West.
However, such an attempt would prove difficult, given that the Revolutionary Guard will oppose such policy changes. The military group is a powerful actor in Iran, and has the loyalty of highly ranked military officers through monetary bribes. This is made possible through the Revolutionary Guard’s control over civil trade and industry.
Rouhani has come to the crossroads with two paths to choose between. He can confront his powerful conservative enemies and put his hopes to the young reformist movement. Or he can continue to tighten the regime’s grip over the country and confront President Trump’s words with militarization and isolation, abandoning the nuclear deal and social reform. Regardless of what path he decides to choose, it will have a lasting impact on the future of Iran and its generations of tomorrow.