For the last 3 weeks, the Iranian government felt the anger of its people. The death of 22-year-old, Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police for her supposedly incorrect hijab, has sparked an international outcry and a national mobilisation. Reports indicate there have been protests in all 31 of Iran’s provinces, with scenes of women defiantly removing their hijabs, cutting off their hair in public and crowds chanting “death to the dictator”. However, as the West seeks a new nuclear deal with Iran, it is paramount not to confuse the widespread civil disobedience with state weakness.
Time plays a critical role in negotiations. It affects the basic processes of negotiator cognition and motivation. The more a negotiating party is constrained by time, the more likely it will be ready to make concessions in order to reach an agreement.
In 2015, after 8 years of coordinated economic sanctions between the US, the EU, China and other partners against Iran had crippled the country, with no improvements in sight, the Islamic Republic finally agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) a.k.a., the “Iran Nuclear Deal”. 7 years later, the tables have turned. It is now Iran that has time in its corner, while the US and, especially, the EU find themselves fighting the clock.
The JCPOA was a historic diplomatic achievement. It witnessed the UN Permanent Security Council members (US, France, China, Russia and UK) plus Germany (i.e., P5+1) reach an agreement with Iran. In exchange for lifted and reduced sanctions, Iranian leadership agreed not to develop weapons-grade enriched uranium for 15 years, as well as reduce its uranium stockpile by 98% among many other conditions. The White House announced that when the deal was signed, Iran surrendered enough enriched uranium for 8-10 warheads.
The P5+1 were able to successfully negotiate so much in return because as former top US Diplomat, William J. Burns, said “Sanctions pressure was building and we wanted the Iranian government to feel the pain”. Through years of coordinated, targeted, and carefully designed sanctions, that cut Iran out of the international financial system and even penalised third-party countries if they did not reduce their purchases of Iranian oil, Iran’s GDP contracted by over 35%. These sanctions were so well designed that Iran’s oil exports fell from about 2.6 million barrels a day in 2011, to less than half of that in 2014, all without major disruption to world oil markets. A miraculous feat that today’s energy prices are proving.
Despite what the recent scenes of widespread protests across Iran may lead us to believe, Iran is in a far stronger position today than it was in 2015. A significant factor explaining this, is justly how the JCPOA came to a demise.
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When the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 under Trump, it attempted to reinstitute the plurilateral sanctions against Iran. Ironically, this effort failed because the US had already withdrawn from the agreement. This left the US to reimpose sanctions unilaterally since 2020.
While the US’ sanctions are not without impact, they have been far less detrimental than the coordinated sanctions that were established in the run-up to the JCPOA. Moreover, not only is Iran in a stronger position than it was 7 years ago, but the West is also in a far weaker position. The war in Ukraine and the sanctions on Russian oil and gas, have left Europe in an especially precarious position. With winter fast approaching, Iran’s oil suddenly becomes an increasingly powerful bargaining chip and Iran recognises this.
A few weeks ago, the negotiations to revive the nuclear deal went back in the deep freeze as Tehran doubled down on some of its conditions and European powers responded by saying they had reached the limits of their flexibility. As time goes on, Europe will only lose more leverage, while Iran inches closer to being a threshold nuclear state as the International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that the information gap about the country’s activities is growing to a dangerous level.
The West must adapt their diplomatic strategy if they wish to see any meaningful results. During the JCPOA negotiations, the US had tactfully used a backchannel through the Sultan of Oman, to reach an agreement with Iran. This time around another Gulf country could do the trick. Namely, the UAE could play a decisive role in spearheading diplomatic efforts to finalise an agreement. The Emirates has significantly grown its relations with Israel and the West, and its historic ties to Tehran positions the country as the ideal interlocutor for a renewed deal.
The mass unrest in Iran, however, must not be mistakenly analysed as a weakening Iran, that will quickly agree to a new nuclear deal. The macro-winds have changed, and Iran has far more leverage than it did in the past.
Dr Majid Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council, a board member of the Harvard International Review at the University of Harvard, and a member of the Gulf Project at the University of Columbia.
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