Untangling the threads of Iran’s nuclear narrative

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It has been a busy few weeks for Iran-related headlines: domestic turmoil triggered by the death of a Kurdish woman while in custody for allegedly violating rules on wearing the hijab; negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal; and the release of an elderly former UNICEF official after more than six years.اضافة اعلان

All of which has Iran watchers wondering: Will these separate events weave a new narrative about Iran, its likely course, and US responses in the coming months?

Iranian society, led by women and girls, has converged in most of Iran’s major cities and towns to shout a new slogan: “Woman, life, liberty”. Unlike protests of the past that were staged mainly by educated elites against election irregularities, recent demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini appear to have tapped into a wider demographic and have more universal appeal.

Young girls are mocking security forces, parading their veils on sticks, and showing a bravery and defiance unlike previous revolts against the cruelties of the Islamic Republic. 

Few are willing to speculate that this could be the end of Iran’s “revolution” and the beginning of real political change. The geriatric leaders in Tehran have not offered a word of empathy for the protesters, and the security forces they command have killed several dozen and imprisoned thousands. 

It is equally impossible to predict how these protests will play out. The passion of protesters could fade, or the regime might offer concessions that would undercut momentum on the street. But it is also conceivable that a deeper unraveling will occur, given the other stresses on Iran — from sanctions and international isolation to diminished opportunities for millions of young people. 

At the same time, Iran’s leaders face some hard choices regarding the nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). There has been a slow dance between the US and Iran, orchestrated by the other parties to the agreement and officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) in Vienna. The two sides have exchanged proposals and, as recently as August, some believed an agreement was within reach.

Those hopes were dashed when Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the UN General Assembly in late September, accusing the West of nuclear hypocrisy.

Diplomats close to the negotiations now see Iran reintroducing issues that had been resolved – such as the timing of an IAEA safeguards investigation – perhaps acting to delay any decision until after the US midterm elections in November. The mood on the US side, especially among those who prefer an imperfect agreement to the uncertainties of no agreement, has darkened.

Optimists might hope that these threads will come together to weave a new narrative for Iran’s leaders, such as compromising on the JCPOA to improve their image and credibility. Yet there is little evidence from Iranian history that such logic will prevail.

To the contrary, the most likely impact of the veil protests is to make the regime more rigid. The regime is always prone to the belief that foreign powers are causing Iran harm. Because Western countries, including the US, are doing what they can to support the protests, one can assume that any spillover to JCPOA will be negative, not positive.

The final event impacting US-Iran relations is the recent release of an Iranian-American held by the regime since 2015. Baquer Namazi, the 86-year-old former UNICEF official, has traveled to the UAE for medical treatment. Iran had previously dismissed charges against him but had not allowed him to leave the country.
So, while it is understandable to think that there must be a master plan that brings all these discrete events together in Washington’s Iran policy, the truth is that the US government is trying to do the opposite.
His 51-year-old son, Siamik Namazi, had been given a temporary release from Evin Prison but was forced to return this week.

The US has acknowledged indirect talks with Iran over Baquer Namazi’s release, but details are scarce. It is possible that he was released out of fear for his medical condition, not as part of a swap or negotiation.

In July, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order about unlawfully detained Americans, formalizing the diplomatic process for seeking release of US citizens wrongfully held. It permits more penalties for hostage holders and allows the US government to share more information with the families of detainees imprisoned by non-state actors or by governments. 

In other words, the US is keeping hostage release efforts separate from the give and take of other ongoing work, such as the JCPOA. So, while it is understandable to think that there must be a master plan that brings all these discrete events together in Washington’s Iran policy, the truth is that the US government is trying to do the opposite.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush signaled to Iran that “goodwill begets goodwill”, the notion that progress in one arena would spill over to other issues in dispute. But coming on the heels of the Reagan administration’s Iran Contra scandal in the 1980s, which included a scheme to swap arms with Iran for hostages in Lebanon, Bush’s interconnected policy approach eventually fell flat.

Similarly, it is best to think of this current moment as a messy mix of challenges, some bringing heightened attention to Iran’s human rights conditions, and others in the multifaceted security arena, from Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities to its activism across the region from Syria and Iraq to Yemen. While it is tempting to weave a connected narrative on US-Iran relations, history is rarely so neat.

Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, Syndication Bureau.

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