Has Iran ruined its nuclear deal chances with violent crackdown?

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Iranian authorities’ brutal repression of protests over the death of Mahsa Amini has put the parties in the Iran nuclear talks in a delicate position, as they condemn Tehran’s actions while trying to negotiate on a separate issue.


The Iranian state has clamped down fiercely on the wave of popular anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the “morality police” on September 16 – arresting journalists, targeting student demonstrators, using live ammunition.

The clampdown has further complicated the vexed talks between Iran and the great powers – the US (informally), France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China – over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Negotiations had already stalled after a year and a half of diplomacy.

Many Western countries have urged Tehran to respect human rights amid the protests following Amini’s death. France, for example, called for EU-wide sanctions against those responsible for the repression that has killed more than 100 people according to Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights.

France’s ‘prudent’ style

“In light of what’s been going on in Iran, the parties engaged in the nuclear talks are less keen to pursue a renewed deal at all costs,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East specialist at the IRIS think-tank in Paris. “And for its part, the regime is hardening its stance in response to the protests and is now even less inclined to make any compromise with international powers that might suggest weakness. So it seems unlikely that Iran will change its stance towards the West in the nuclear talks.

“Western powers involved in the talks can bring up human rights – and we’ve seen that with the sanctions the Europeans and the US have announced,” Rigoulet-Roze went on. “But human rights are not one of the issues at stake in the agreement itself.”

“Human rights are extremely important, but if the negotiators bring it into the mix, they’re just not going to get an agreement,” said Thierry Coville, an Iran analyst also at IRIS. “What’s more, the Islamic Republic will class it as interference and say it’s evidence that the protests are part of a foreign plot.”

Tehran is already trying to frame the unrest in these terms – with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming on Monday that the “riots” were fomented by the US and Israel, and not organised by “ordinary Iranians”.

After the French foreign ministry condemned the “brutal repression” of Iranian protesters, Paris had its chargé d’affaires summoned for a dressing down in Tehran last week. While announcing this, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said on Tuesday that “Iran regarded a reminder of the fundamental principles of human rights as a form of interference and decided to say so to our embassy there”.

“France doesn’t want to make an already tragic situation even worse,” Rigoulet-Roze said. “It doesn’t want to give Tehran a pretext to justify conspiratorial allegations about supposed international interference.”

It’s not just the French government in a difficult position. With the US midterms coming up on November 8, it is “difficult” for President Joe Biden to “commit to a nuclear agreement with a country that does not respect human rights”, Coville said.

Two-track diplomacy

So the White House’s diplomacy towards Iran is operating on two different levels. On the one hand, Biden announced on Monday new sanctions against the perpetrators of the repression. On the other hand, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre hastened to add that Washington could both condemn the crackdown and participate in nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

“Even at the height of the Cold War, as President Reagan was calling the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire,’ he was also engaged in arms control talks because he knew that on the one hand, we had to push back vigorously against the repression of the Soviet Union,” Jean-Pierre said. “And at the same time, we had to protect and defend the security of ourselves, our allies, and our partners.”

Iran agreed in August to drop its demand that the US remove the Revolutionary Guard Corps from its blacklist of terrorist organisations – demonstrating that Tehran is flexible at least up to a point.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani suggested on Monday a softening of Tehran’s stance – announcing that Iran and the US exchanged messages on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in mid-September, using the EU’s diplomatic coordinator for Iran Enrique Mora and other senior officials as intermediaries.

“There is still a possibility and a chance to resume the implementation of the nuclear deal,” Mora said. “Efforts are under way with the European coordinator and other mediators, including the foreign ministries of neighbouring countries, to exchange messages to reach an agreement.” 

“If the other side, particularly the US government, shows political will, it is possible that a deal will be concluded in a short period,” he added.

Tehran released on October 1 Iranian-American dual citizen Baquer Namazi, a former provincial governor under the Shah, and his son Siamak, both of whom were arrested in 2015. A “medical requirement” motivated the decision, according to the US State Department – while the Islamic Republic News Agency said it was linked to the release of about $7 billion of Iranian funds blocked abroad.

Iran was taking a “prudent step backwards” in releasing those two detainees, Coville said. “Current events are pushing Tehran to be flexible on the diplomatic front to try and get an agreement.”

‘Obstructionist’ approach

Nevertheless, obstacles stand in the way of a renewed deal, Rigoulet-Roze said. “There might be compromises on the margin when it comes to diplomacy over the hostages and releasing funds under sequestration – but that won’t allow an agreement to be signed.”

Even before the protests over Mahsa Amini’s death, Iran was taking an “obstructionist” approach overall, he added.

At the same time, France, the UK and Germany have lost patience with Iran over its accelerating nuclear programme – even if the three European powers were still keen to secure a deal until recently.

Indeed, the Islamic Republic has further increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to 60 percent, close to weapons grade, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s latest report. Just a bit more enrichment would give Iran enough to make an atomic bomb.

This is a concern, seeing as “Iran doesn’t want to give the IAEA an answer about the presence of anthropogenic uranium found at three undeclared sensitive sites: Marivan, Varamin and Turquzabad,” Rigoulet-Roze said, arguing that an agreement is impossible as things stand. The UN nuclear watchdog said in May that Iran has not given “satisfactory answers” about those three sites.

And US politics present an obstacle to an agreement. Iranian negotiators are demanding that Biden agree that any new deal be respected into the future, even if he loses the 2024 presidential election. But it is simply impossible for a US president to sign off on that, “because the nature of US institutions does not allow it”, as Rigoulet-Roze put it.

“Biden can’t commit himself legally to that for one reason: The Iran deal is an agreement rather than a treaty,” he continued. “The US Congress must give the green light to any international treaties Washington signs. But there’s never going to be a sufficient majority for this to happen.”

Instead of thinking about resurrecting the 2015 deal, Rigoulet-Roze concluded, Western powers should focus on “managing” the fallout from the end of the agreement, as the accord has been seen as “hollow” since ex-US president Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.

“Iran is now a country on the nuclear threshold: They are well aware that if they want to make a nuclear bomb they’ve got enough uranium enriched to a high level and have the kind of know-how you can’t really get rid of – even if it doesn’t seem to be the case that they’ve made the political decision to build one for now.”

This article was translated from the original in French.