Can Iran’s “Revolt of the Hungry” Revitalize the Nuclear Deal?
Marina Forti 11 July 2022

Images circulating on social media show crowds in Teheran and other important Iranian cities shouting slogans against price increases and the government. Similar scenes have been repeated every week at least since May and bear witness to a new wave of protests in Iran, involving men and women, the young and the old, tradespeople, state employees and pensioners. In June in particular, teachers too took to the streets asking for salary increases and also demanding that colleagues arrested at previous protests be released.

During the same period other images attracted attention to Iran: those of the country’s head negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arriving in Qatar’s capital Doha for a round of indirect talks with U.S. envoy Robert Malley, mediated by the European Union as well as the emirs of Qatar. Unlike previous rounds of negotiations held in Vienna, those in Doha did not involve representatives from Great Britain, France and Germany or Russia and China, i.e. the other signatories of the nuclear deal subject to the current relaunch attempt. The agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015, had led Iran to dramatically limit its nuclear activities supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but had been jeopardised when the United States decided to abandon the agreement in May 2018, as decided by the then President Donald Trump.

Domestic social turmoil and negotiations to bring back to life the nuclear agreement between Tehran and the world powers are not directly linked – and yet domestic and international scenarios are never very distant in Iran. Let us see why.


Pressure from below

The most recent wave of protests in Iran started on a specific date, May 5th, when the government announced yet another cut in subsidies on the price of food. In previous weeks, controlled prices on vegetable oil, meat and poultry had disappeared; this time, subsidies on the prices of flour and then bread, were cut. In just a few days the price of ordinary bread increased fivefold and so did the rage of citizens. Some extremely critical comments circulated on daily newspapers, expressed not only by the reformist opposition but also by many members of the government majority. Even a former intelligence minister, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, warned President Ebrahim Raissì that a “revolt of the hungry” was being organised.

Since May the prices of vegetable oil, eggs, bread and dairy products have increased by up to 300 percent. Protests broke out almost everywhere. Social media saw the circulation of scenes such as this one, in which faces are not visibile, but one can clearly hear people protesting about salaries not being paid, with swearing addressed at the government and even at the Supreme Leader (the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest authority of the state).

President Raissi has tried to take action and on May 15th, following a cabinet meeting, announced new subsidies for families living below the poverty line, to be paid in cash using the electronic coupon system. First vice-president Mohammad Mokhber, considered the main author of the government’s economic policies, had promised that the price of oil, poultry and eggs would return to normal within a few days. These were empty promises that were not enough to calm protests.

In the meantime, on June 16th thousands of teachers protested in Tehran and other cities, from Ahvaz to Sanandaj and Kermanshsh in the west of the country, to Shiraz in the south. They were protesting because  the salary increases promised by Raissì’s government last autumn never materialised. It appears that the police arrested one hundred activists from the teachers’ trade union, of these about sixty in the city of Shiraz alone. “Due to inflation, state employees, teachers, workers and pensioners are seeing their buying power fall every day,” stated a public announcement made on Telegram by the teachers’ union. They expressed displeasure because “Those in power use measures involving extreme violence instead of listening to the screams of protest.”; they also ask that their colleagues arrested in recent weeks be released and accuse intelligence forces of using “confessions obtained under pressure.” As an organised movement, teachers have been targeted by security apparatuses and accused of being “manipulated by foreign forces” to attack Iran. The arrest of two French trade unionists in Iran, travelling on tourist visas but in touch with Iranian trade union members, was reported in the same manner.

However, it was when faced with more spontaneous protests that the police reacted violently and there are reports of at least one person being killed during charges made to disperse the crowds (unofficial news reports that five people were killed).

Iran has already experienced similar protests. In 2017, when the government (led by the pragmatic president Hasan Rohani) drastically cut subsidies on the price of petrol with no warning at all and then in December 2019, when new protests against the cost of living were brutally repressed.

The point is that protests involving the cost of bread or petrol reveal deep-seated anger; this involves above all the young living in more marginal suburbs, the impoverished lower bourgeoisie and the urban underprivileged classes. They are not linked to organised political parties and hence they do not represent an immediate danger to the state, which so far has reacted above all using repression. It is however precisely these alienated layers of the populations that are those on which the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is based.

At the end of June, President Raissì went to celebrate the first anniversary of his swearing-in ceremony in Varamin, one of Tehran’s extremely modest satellite cities: “I prefer … to see the people and listen to their concerns,” he said.

Raissì, a conservative politician elected in June 2021 with no opponents after all the candidates with a chance of being elected had been excluded from the elections, has travelled all over the country in the past year, trying to be perceived as a president “close to the people.” But he is finding it hard to keep his most important promise, that of complying with the citizens’ material needs.


A joint comprehensive solution?

Iranians instead continue to become impoverished. In the month that ended on June 21st inflation amounted to 12.2 percent according to official data and to 51 percent on an annual basis. The price of food however rose more than anything else, even more than transport. Bijan Khajehpour, an Iranian entrepreneur and financial commentator, speaks of  “inflationary shock” that disproportionally affects the lower classes and this explains why the Raissì government places so much emphasis on cash subsidies and other forms of welfare for the less well-off. But inflation does not only affect lower income groups. The entire Iranian middleclass has lost buying power. Unemployment remains high, officially at 21 percent affecting the young aged between 21 and 24. The national currency, the rial, continues to lose value. The effects are visible and can be seen in the growing number of people trying to emigrate, the general deterioration of peoples’ health and even in a rise of small urban criminality according to Khajehpour. Cash subsidies will help some families experiencing greater problems, but do not compensate the overall impoverishment of Iranians.

Inflation has various causes, but the main one is the state budget’s systematic deficit, says Khajehpour, adding that “There is a remedy for these current economic dilemmas. The Raisi administration should reinstate the 2015 nuclear agreement so as to unfreeze Iranian assets held by foreign banks. Reinstating the JCPOA would allow companies to operate more freely,” he says, “and Iran could increase its oil exports which would help reduce the deficit.”

And so the domestic scenario leads back to the international one.

Negotiations in Doha are taking place three months after previous talks were suspended in March in Vienna and were preceded by great diplomatic activism. On June 24th the head of EU foreign policy Joseph Borrell arrived in Teheran; a week earlier the city had been visited by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In May Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had travelled to meet his colleagues from China and Russia, while during talks in Doha instead he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.

It is hard to say whether indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States will be a success – that looks in fact unlikely. IAEA director Rafael Grossi has warned that within a few weeks the JCPOA will be definitively dead. And yet in March, in Vienna, negotiators had made significant progress and outlined the steps that would have resulted in both the United States and Iran resuming terms agreed on in 2015.

Tension has, however, increased since then. Over the past year, Iran has extended its nuclear activities far beyond the limits of the 2015 agreement, responding to sanctions imposed by the United States – and the fact that they have not eased significantly with the advent of Joe Biden’s administration. In June, 30 of the 35 member countries on the board of the IAEA approved a resolution condemning Iran’s “lack of cooperation”. Tehran replied by disconnecting a number of the IAEA cameras supervising its nuclear plants, undermining what Grossi has described as the “continuity of knowledge” concerning Iran’s activities. Furthermore, Iran has announced that is has set in motion some new centrifuges at its underground plant in Fordow: making matters even more difficult.


Managing expectations

And yet, the obstacles are more political than technical. One of the controversial points, for example, concerns the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, i.e. one of the state’s armed forces, which the United States under Donald Trump had included among the ‘terrorist organisations’. Iran demands that the designation be removed while the Biden administration demands reciprocal steps be taken that Tehran finds unacceptable. It seems an unsurmountable impasse: yet it could be circumvented, should Iran find other U.S. gestures and guarantees acceptable.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that it is only a matter of offering Iran economic advantages. Certainly, the Iranian economy would have everything to gain from the easing of sanctions: but the difficulties in the negotiations today are first and foremost political. And they concern mutual trust between Tehran and Washington.

In 2015 Iranian leaders placed their trust in the negotiations and then approved the agreement reached, to then discover that a president of the United States can disregard accords signed by a predecessor. Today’s Iranian leaders do not wish to run the same risk. In 2018 discredit for failure fell on the pragmatic government led by Rohani, which extremist political movements had always accused of ‘selling out’ national interests: so when the U.S. tore up the agreement there was a chorus of “we told you so”. Another failure today would hit just that conservative school of thought that now holds all power – the executive, parliament and the judiciary. Furthermore, consensus concerning the agreement had come from the Supreme Leader in person, and he cannot expose himself to being deceived by the United States a second time – so much so that in Tehran the political battle for appointing his successor has already begun.

Iran does not know whether to trust the United States or not and this is understandable. Joe Biden’s administration has always declared it wished to re-join the JCPOA, but it is unlikely it wants this to the extent of opening domestic political clashes with the Senate where there is powerful opposition to agreements with Iran, all the more so with the mid-term elections approaching and the Democrats trailing. It is also uncertain that Biden will win a second term; from an Iranian perspective this means that after 2024 Washington could have a “tougher” Administration, perhaps with a new Mike Pompeo, the man who applied the “greatest pressure” strategy on Tehran.

Thus Iran demands ‘inherent guarantees’ on the implementation of the agreements. And since it has learned that no U.S. president can guarantee for his successor, it demands different guarantees. One proposal is that the uranium enriched to between 20 and 60 percent, currently stockpiled at Iranian facilities, be placed in sealed storage under the control of the IAEA, but on Iranian territory (in the past it had been transferred abroad). It also calls for a review of infringement mechanisms or guarantees that there will be no retaliation on companies that have business contacts with Iran.

On the other hand not even Raisi’s government, which would also benefit from a relaxation of the pressure applied on the Iranian economy, has managed to gather domestic consensus for a new agreement to relaunch the JCPOA. The insistence on the removal of the negative label given to the Revolutionary Guards must be seen in this sense: Raissì could boast that he had obtained a concession that his predecessor Rohani had not managed to, and that would also be helpful in forging domestic consensus for new accords – as observed by Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy-director of the Middle East program at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Finally, another danger looms over the negotiations and the entire regional framework: that Iran, the United States and Israel may ‘misunderstand each other’s tolerance for gestures considered as escalation’, adds Geranmayeh. Incidents and provocations such as the hijacking of an Iranian oil cargo ship in Greece in May and the subsequent seizure of two Greek oil tankers by Iran could get out of hand.  Even Israel’s campaign against Iran has intensified, with repeated attacks on military bases in Iranian territory, the murder of personalities linked to the nuclear programme or accusations addressed at Iran saying the county intended to attack Israeli tourists in Turkey. While the most extremist currents in Iran are raising their voices again, calling for a push on uranium enrichment (up to 90 per cent, a level necessary for military use), and for once and for all exiting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – something that would, however, provoke countermeasures from the U.S. or Israel.

All in all the supporters of a hard line, in Iran as in the United States and Israel, might think that the time has come to play a tough game, running the risk not only to put an end to any possible political solution, but also sparking a conflict.

It is so as to avoid all this that Europe has every interest in re-launching the nuclear agreement with Iran. All the more so since nobody appears to have a back-up plan.


Cover Photo: Iranian President Ebrahim Reisi makes a speech on the occasion of the National Nuclear Technology Day – Tehran, April 9, 2022 [Iranian Presidency – Handout/Anadolu Agency via AFP).

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