Want to help Iran’s reformers? — revive the nuclear deal
The latest round of indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States for reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which took place in Qatar, ended without any progress. The reason for the quick failure is not clear, as the United States and Iran have offered two distinct reasons for it.
When asked by National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep why the negotiations failed, Robert Malley, the United States’ chief negotiator with Iran, gave a non-answer response, saying, “The European Union, as coordinator [of the indirect negotiations], put on the table very detailed outlines of what they think a fair outcome would be, and we’ve said we’re prepared to take that deal. The party that has not said yes is Iran.” Just claiming that the negotiations failed because Iran has not said “yes” to the EU proposal, without saying why Iran did so, is not enough. Surely, Malley knows why, but for whatever reason, he refused to specify it.
Axios quoted an unnamed senior American official as saying, “The Iranians have not demonstrated any sense of urgency, raised old issues that have been settled for months, and even raised new issues that are unrelated to the 2015 nuclear agreement.” Once again, this official refused to say what the “old issues” are.
Before leaving office in August 2021, former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emphasized many times that his administration had reached, in principle, an agreement with the Biden administration on the basic principles for both sides returning to the JCPOA that presumably included removal of the IRGC from the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list. This week, Rouhani repeated again his assertion that the basic elements of the agreement had been agreed upon in March 2021.
It has been reported for months that one stumbling block to concluding an agreement is supposedly Iran’s insistence on the United States removing the IRGC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations, which the United States has refused. But, as I reported previously, a few months ago Iran’s pragmatic Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had signaled that the IRGC issue was not Iran’s top priority. Indeed, right before the negotiations in Qatar, Reuters quoted Iranian and European diplomats saying that Iran had dropped its demand for the removal of the IRGC’s FTO sanctions.
It was also reported that Iran had demanded that the Biden administration guarantee that the next administration will not renege on its JCPOA obligations and re-impose sanctions. But Amir-Abdollahian denied that Iran had made new demands. He said that what Iran wants is a guarantee that as long as the Biden administration is in office, it will benefit economically from returning to the JCPOA. The concern in Tehran is that if Iran returns to the JCPOA, the Biden administration may first remove the sanctions, but later on find a non-nuclear excuse, such as violation of human rights to re-impose them. In that case, Iran will be forced to abide by its JCPOA obligations without receiving any economic benefits, but Washington has refused to guarantee this.
Meanwhile, protests against the terrible state of economy have been on the rise in Iran. Recognizing that the most important reason for the poor state of economy is the U.S. sanctions, the public, as well as the opposition to the hardliners, have been demanding a return to the JCPOA, even if it means making significant concessions. A new poll also indicated that close to 60 percent of the people strongly support returning to the JCPOA, while only 17 percent oppose.
Iran’s hardliners’ reaction to the mounting pressure, demands for a better economy, and returning to the JCPOA has been arresting some leading dissident and political activists. Prominent film makers Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi, and Mostafa Al-Ahmad were arrested a week ago, as was the leading reformist and former deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, for protesting the hardliners and their policies.
Tajzadeh, in particular, has been a strong critic of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his policies, consistently blaming him for the current state of affairs, his policy throughout the Middle East, and his hardline toward the JCPOA, for which he was jailed for seven years, most of which was in solitary confinement.
In May 2021 Tajzadeh announced his candidacy for Iran’s president with a platform that called for deep and irreversible changes in Iran’s power structure, as well as in the domestic and foreign policies, particularly regarding the Middle East. Though the Guardian Council that vets the candidates rejected him, Tajzadeh has been highly popular among Iranians for his courageous stand against the hardliners and, in particular, Khamenei. Before his recent arrest, whenever he spoke the popular social media forum Clubhouse, tens of thousands of people, both inside and outside Iran, listened to what has to say and asked questions regarding his political and economic positions, to which he always responded bluntly and honestly.
But, since taking office, what President Biden has done has only aided Iran’s hardliners. During his campaign for president in 2020 he promised that he would return to the JCPOA quickly, but while he has been paying lip service to the cause, his administration has continued Trump’s policy by imposing new sanctions on Iran.
Biden’s strong support of Israel while it continues to carry out terrorist attacks in Iran, his threat during his recent trip to Israel that he would be willing to use force against Iran, his signing with Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid of a declaration of strategic partnership that is strongly anti-Iran, and his trip to Saudi Arabia in which he met with Iran’s archenemy Mohammed bin Salman and criticized Iran multiple times, all point to abandoning the promise of a more realistic Iran policy and succumbing to the domestic and foreign pressure. All of these have bolstered what Iran’s hardliners have been saying for years, namely, that one cannot trust the United States.
If Iran is to change, moderate its Middle East policy, and take concrete steps toward a representative government, it has to be done by the Iranian people living in Iran without outside interference. The outside world should not do anything that would hurt Iran’s democratic opposition. To continue Trump’s policy of imposing sanctions, siding with Iran’s regional enemies, and refusing to return to the JCPOA, the Biden administration is greatly hurting not only ordinary Iranian people who have no say on what the hardliners do, but also moderate and progressive Iranians who courageously oppose the hardliners and continue their struggle for a better Iran that would be good for the cause of peace in the Middle East and throughout the world.