Fueled by pent-up economic and political dissatisfaction, a wave of popular protests swept Iran at the end of 2017. After a few days of peaceful demonstrations, Iranian forces cracked down, leading to deadly clashes in several cities and providing a new source of tension between the Iranian government and the United States.
The first mass protests began on 12/28 in Mashhad, a city of 2 million and a strong base of support for presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi in the 5/2017 election won by current incumbent Hassan Rouhani. While defending the predominantly young protesters’ rights to demonstrate peacefully, Rouhani called on them to avoid violence, and argued that the unrest was about aging elites and their hold on power as much as it was about the sluggish economy. “It would be a misrepresentation and also an insult to the Iranian people to say they only had economic demands,” Rouhani was reported as saying (Reuters, 1/8), adding that people also had “political and social demands.” At the same time, he oversaw an expansive crackdown. By 1/1, some 450 protesters had been arrested in Tehran alone. Within a week, Iranian forces had violently dispersed demonstrations in more than eighty cities, leading to the deaths of at least 22 people.
The protests were immediately used by both U.S. president Trump and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu to skewer Iran. In a tweet on 12/31, Trump thundered, “Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!” Netanyahu, for his part, praised the “heroic” protesters. “Iran’s cruel regime wastes tens of billions of dollars spreading hate,” he said in a YouTube video uploaded on 1/1. “This money could have built schools and hospitals. No wonder mothers and fathers are marching in the streets.”
Days later, as the protests were winding down, U.S. ambassador to the UN Haley called a meeting of the UNSC to discuss the protests. Russian diplomats opposed the effort, but allowed the meeting to proceed. The Chinese and several nonpermanent members of the UNSC expressed similar anti-interventionist reservations, and the UNSC ultimately took no action. “Majority [of the UNSC] emphasized the need to fully implement the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 7/14/2015 known as the Iran nuclear deal] and to refrain from interfering in internal affairs of others. Another F[oreign] P[olicy] blunder for the Trump administration,” tweeted Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (1/6).
JCPOA under Threat
After announcing (10/13) that he would no longer certify that Iran was upholding its commitments under the JCPOA (see JPS 47 ), Trump took another step to undermine the agreement this quarter. His efforts exacerbated tensions between the United States and Iran and drove a wedge between the United States and its allies, except for Israel.
On 1/4, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on five entities allegedly involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and eight days later Trump announced (1/12) that he was extending the JCPOA-mandated waivers on nuclear-related sanctions against Iran one last time. This final waiver, he said, would give the United States time to negotiate with its European allies a “follow-on” agreement before the next deadline for extending sanctions relief, in 120 days. “In the absence of such an agreement, the U.S. will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. “And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.” Trump reportedly wanted the new agreement to address his long-standing complaints about Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights record, and make permanent the deal’s limitations on Iranian uranium enrichment. At the same time, the Treasury announced (1/12) more new sanctions, targeting fourteen Iranian individuals, including Iran’s chief justice, Sadeq Larijani.
The Iranian government, which international regulators have consistently found to be in compliance with the JCPOA, was predictably upset. Zarif accused (1/12) the U.S. president of making a “desperate attempt” to undermine a “solid” deal, and the Foreign Ministry stated (1/13) that Tehran would not accept any amendments to the JCPOA “now or in the future” or allow any other issues, such as the ballistic missile program, to be built into the deal. A senior Iranian official confirmed (1/13) that Tehran intended to continue work on its ballistic missile program, despite Trump’s threats and sanctions.
The reaction from the three European states needed for Trump’s “follow-on” strategy to work—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—was mixed. The three, along with Russia, China, and the United States, comprise the so-called P5+1, the international group that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran in the first place. Their consent to a follow-on deal and their willingness to reimpose sanctions were deemed necessary leverage for Trump to get Iran back to the negotiating table. Prior to Trump’s 1/12 announcement, UK prime minister Theresa May had urged the U.S. president to stick to the deal. A German spokesperson said (1/12) that Berlin would “continue to campaign for the full implementation of the nuclear agreement” and consult with Paris and London on a “common way forward.” Macron called Trump reportedly hours after the U.S. president’s announcement, and urged “the strict application of the deal and the importance of all the signatories to respect it” (BBC, 1/13).
By the end of the quarter, however, it appeared that the three European allies were at least engaging on the issue. Following a week-long stay in Warsaw, U.S. secretary of state Tillerson stated (1/27) that working groups comprising diplomats from all four countries had begun to meet to discuss “the scope of what we attempt to address and also how much we engage Iran on discussions to address these issues.” He also said that the working groups would identify “areas of greater cooperation [with] Europe to push back on Iran’s malign behavior” (Reuters, 1/27).