The future of Iran after the U.S abandonment of the nuclear deal.
On May 8th, 2018, President Trump declared that the United States would be withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an international agreement commonly referred to as the “Iran Nuclear Deal” signed by all of the permanent members of the U.N Security Council, Germany, and Iran. The JCPOA is an agreement that took more than two years of arduous diplomatic effort to shape. The final agreement was hailed by the international community as an outline to deter an arms race in the Middle East, ensuring stability in the region. The agreement immensely scaled back Iran’s nuclear capabilities as it prohibits Iran from enriching uranium past the rate of 3.67%. To make nuclear weapons, Iran needs 90% enriched, “weapons-grade” uranium. In addition, under the agreement, Iran would have to give up 98% of its current stockpile of Uranium, going from 10 thousand kilograms to only 300 kilograms. The agreement would also allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors unrestricted access to all of its nuclear facilities. All of these provisions would phase out in ten to fifteen years. By 2030, almost all of these provisions would be lifted. In return for its cooperation, the U.S and its European partners would lift crippling sanctions off of the Iranian economy. Without the sanctions, Iran will be able to access $32 billion worth of overseas assets, allowing the country to resume trading its oil on international markets and increase its access to the international banking system.
Critics like Donald Trump and high ranking Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have argued that the deal just delays Iran’s capabilities to form a nuclear arsenal and that after the provisions expire, Iran would start re-enriching uranium. Furthermore, Trump has argued that with more economic relief, Iran’s support for regional militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas would increase, many of which the U.S considers as terrorist organizations. Under these concerns, President Trump made the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, snapping economic sanctions back into place to put further strain on the Iraninan economy. The Republican leadership views the nuclear deal as a capitulation to a country that has no intent on disarmament and every intent on expanding its influence in the region.
The United States has valid concerns regarding Iran’s commitment to the deal, given Iran’s history of violations regarding international conventions and human rights. From raiding the U.S embassy in 1979 and taking 52 staff as hostages, to using child soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iran has projected itself as a country that is at odds with international law. Iran’s continued support for Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and most importantly the Assad regime in Syria has earned it a reputation for sponsoring terrorism. However, what the Trump administration fails to understand is that its John Bolton inspired hawkish rhetoric and maximum pressure on the Iranian economy may not precipitate the fall of the regime. In reality, the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal could embolden the traditional Iranian power structure by further alienating it from the world. President Trump has increased the pressure on Iran’s economy, limiting potential business opportunities and foreign investment, which Iranians need to access the opportunities the international community can offer. The reduction of access to outside economic investment has made it difficult to cement a more open reformist ideology for Iran.
In Iran, the regime has a powerful grip on a consertive traditionalist ideology. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 placed all decisions under Shi’ite Islamic thinking, rejecting any form of secular thought. The philosophy of the new Islamic Republic of Iran leaves little room for dissent. It does not tolerate free speech nor freedom of religion as any citizen of Iran must be a member of the four recognized faiths: Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastranism. Members of other faiths unrecognized by the state lose nearly all citizenship rights. Iran converstive establishment views increased connection with the outside world, full of different ideas and identities, as a threat to its power structure largely built on the suppression of thoughts that are unsanctioned by the state. Suppressing dissent through isolation has been relatively easy as the international community has shunned Iran from global markets, crippling its economy. For over 40 years, Iran has been cut off from the advantages of international trade, allowing the regime to strengthen its ideological grip over the country.
The regime, however, has had difficulty in recent years maintaining this grip. Specifically, the internet revolution has allowed the younger generation quick access to outlawed social trends that are prevalent in the West. Iran’s youth have begun to defy the established social norms of the Islamic Republic. In an interview with France 24’s crew, Reihane Taravati, a young photographer and social media influencer, talks about her loose veil and how the public reaction to it has changed. Normally, the law requires women to fully cover their hair and body silhouettes, but recently, some women have opted to wear their veil looser, showing the edge of their hairline. This loose-hijab has become a statement in Iran, depicting a more reformist, liberal image. Taravati explains that women who used to adopt this statement were often harassed by the public and authorities whenever they walked on the streets of Tehran. She says that this has stopped being an issue as people started to view their hijab style with indifference. Taravati says that as society has more access to information, public opinion is shifting against tradition.
Thus, social media has been a crucial component in facilitating Western influences among Iranian’s youth culture and reform mobilization. The 2009 Iranian anti-government protests have been dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” as a result of the social media outlet’s unprecedented role in the organization of the movement. Iranians were able to communicate their dissent internationally and were bolstered by the power of outreach provided by the app. In response, the regime was quick to institute a ban on the tech company.
The nuclear deal could further encourage a more open Iran through the promotion of international economic cooperation and investment. The nuclear deal could encourage a more globalized Iran, allowing for increased access to resources and information that may push Iranians further away from the regime’s autocratic message of isolationism. Therefore, President Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal may reestablish Iran’s economic isolation, which is substantial win for Tehran’s conservative hardliners. The administration’s rhetoric, along with the threat of additional sanctions, have already begun to scare off major tech companies from Iran. In March of 2018, Apple announced that it will no longer operate the App Store in Iran, a blow to the tech savvy youth of the country. The sanctions against Iran perpetuates Iran’s isolation, devoiding it from the influences of the global community.
The Trump administration had hoped that the financial hardship put on Iran and consequently its leadership would ultimately provoke the general public to revolt. The reality is very different. Iranian public opinion has been negative against the withdrawal of the U.S from the nuclear deal and a new poll suggests that Iranians don’t want a new one. When the agreement was signed in 2015, 76% of the Iranian public supported the deal. That number is currently 42% as of October 2019. Rouhani’s government recently opted to decrease its commitments to the agreement, enriching uranium past the agreed rate of 3.67%. This move met with a 74% approval rate from the public. Such data suggests that the Trump administration failed to analyze the nuclear deal’s popularity with the Iranian public and underestimated its possibility in furthering reformist sentiment throughout the region.
The decision to withdraw from the agreement has alienated Iran's liberal factions from encouraging further ties with the West by revoking a ratified agreement, damaging the integrity of the foreign relations of the United States. The administration's retreat from the lucrative nuclear deal verifies the Iranian establishment’s decades old propaganda against opening up ties with the “untrustworthy” West. President Trump’s decision to withdraw diminishes the spirit of liberal reform as Washington has replaced optimism towards a globalized Iran with skepticism. President Trump has managed to unify the many factions of Iran under the establishment’s traditional attitude of Western distrust, effectively destabilizing the prospects of a greater liberalization for Iranian society.