By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
Opponents of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have seized on the popular protests engulfing Iranian cities as a new reason for attacking the agreement. It is of no relevance to them that the protesters themselves are not denouncing the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or calling for foreign sanctions against Iran. The logic, rather, seems to be that because protesters are criticising their government, foreign powers should, in solidarity, similarly attack the Tehran authorities by imposing economic penalties.
US President Donald Trump, whose initial tweets in support of the protests were unusually measured, will be faced with a decision at the end of next week about whether to continue to waive US sanctions as called for by the JCPOA. At the last periodic deadline in September, Trump continued the waivers, but a month later he demonstrated his dislike of the deal by refusing to certify that Iran is complying with it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This time, the deadlines for decisions on certification and sanctions waivers coincide during the period of 11–17 January.
A second decertification would be largely symbolic. A decision not to waive sanctions, on the other hand, would be a material breach of the JCPOA. Whether this would kill the deal is unclear; it would depend on Iran subsequently deciding whether the benefits from trade that escapes US secondary sanctions is sufficient reason to retain intrusive inspections and limits on fissile-material production. What is clear is that reimposing sanctions would remove the US as a party to the agreement, leading to a loss of US leadership, credibility and alliance bonds.
Most of Trump’s cabinet members and senior advisers understand the downsides of unilaterally killing the deal, and will likely be making the case to him for preserving the waivers. The reasons they raised in September for renewing the waivers have not changed. Iran’s compliance with the nuclear limits benefit the national-security interests of the US and its partners, none of which have any interest in breaking the deal and seeking a renegotiation.
The protests themselves present a new reason for continuing to waive the nuclear-related sanctions, so as not to give the regime a pretext for shifting blame for economic hardship to the US. Imposing new sets of sanctions on Iran would further increase the economic difficulties that sparked the protests. A Machiavellian move to increase the economic pain in order to fan the protests would most likely backfire, by giving the government an excuse to evade responsibility for corruption, repression and mismanagement.
To give substance to the US administration’s claims that it supports the Iranian people, it should do more than waive the nuclear-related sanctions. It should lift other restrictions that unfairly penalise ordinary Iranians, beginning with the travel ban on visitors from Iran. Among the eight countries targeted by the ban, Iran is the most affected because it has the largest and most internationally oriented population, and has no official channels through which to address the conditions that would allow for the relaxing of the ban. As long as the ban remains in place, Iranians know that platitudes of support from the administration are empty hypocrisy.
On the other hand, concerned states should impose sanctions over human-rights abuses by authorities who brutally suppress demonstrators. The US is already considering such measures. Other states and the European Union should as well. As of 3 January, 22 people had reportedly died during the rapidly spreading protests that began on 28 December, and the toll is rising. It also makes sense to encourage social-media companies to resist electronic censorship by the Iranian government. In these and other ways, both supporters and opponents of the JCPOA can unite in supporting human and civil rights in Iran. All should hope that the Iranian government will listen to the protests and stop funnelling money and munitions to Hizbullah and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and allow domestic freedoms in Iran.
Beyond demanding change in behaviour, caution is in order about promoting a change to the regime itself. While some protesters have chanted ‘death to the dictator’ (meaning Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), the vast majority of Iranians do not appear to be seeking a fundamental change to the system. The record of regime change in the Middle East has not been salutary, including the revolution in Iran in 1979 that produced the clerical autocracy, and the 2011 Arab Spring that led to chaos and coups in Egypt and elsewhere. Despite earlier hints of calling for regime change, the Trump administration has generally employed caution by not saying so in response to the protests. Similar wisdom should prevail when Trump decides on the sanctions waivers.