The burden of the crisis with the USA
In June 2021, a new Conservative President of the Republic was elected in Iran. Meanwhile, in Vienna, the talks about the Iranian nuclear program agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have dragged on. Both the elections and the Vienna talks show how the shadow of Donald Trump’s past administration in the United States continues to weigh on Iran. Under the JCPOA, signed in 2015 by Iran, the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union, Tehran accepted drastic restrictions on its atomic program in exchange for the removal of international sanctions. In May 2018, the Trump administration denounced the agreement, even though Tehran had respected it and enforced an unprecedented economic and financial blockade against Iran (the “maximum pressure” policy).
This was a real “economic war” for Iran. It hit oil exports and caused a 12% contraction of the economy in 2020. If Trump’s intentions had been realised, it would have caused the collapse of the country and riots to break out, and the regime would have collapsed or at least returned to negotiation. The Iranian economy has actually resisted, even though the middle classes are impoverished and many educated young people are unemployed. There were social protests: in November 2019, a rise in the price of fuel caused riots in many Iranian cities, which were then violently repressed. The regime, however, did not collapse. On the contrary, the most extremist currents of the Islamic Republic have been strengthened. The abandonment of the agreements by the US proved that those who opposed the nuclear agreement were right. It discredited the government of Hassan Rohani, which had invested in international openings, and the reformists. Foreign companies that abandoned the Iranian market have been replaced by companies linked to the Revolutionary Guards, which have increased their economic, military and political powers. This situation resulted in the presidential elections of June 2021. The ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, former head of the judiciary, known for his role in the darkest moments of internal repression, was de facto elected without competition (all candidates close to the reformists had been excluded) and with the lowest voting participation in the history of the Islamic Republic.
And what about now? Ebrahim Raisi clarified that he will respect the JCPOA “in the terms that had been approved on the mandate of the Supreme Leader… It is a contract and the Government will respect it”. Moreover, strategic issues in Iran are the prerogative of the National Security Council and the Leader, and Iranian leadership needs US sanctions to be removed to restore some prosperity to the country. However, negotiations on nuclear power remain difficult. Iran, which had continued to respect the JCPA for a year after the US withdrawal, resumed enriching uranium beyond its limits: in the first months of 2021, it reached an enrichment of 63%. The talks that began in April 2021 have outlined a path to bring both the US and Iran back to respect the agreement at the same time, but progress is slow.
Meanwhile, the past two years of the Trump administration have seen regional escalation. The killing of the Iranian Special Forces commander Qassem Soleimani, hit by a US drone on 3 January 2020 at the Baghdad airport, raised fears of war, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards then accidentally hit a civilian plane that took off from Tehran, killing 176 people. The clash continues under-the-radar, with sabotage in the Iranian nuclear plants, the attack (attributed to Israel) which killed the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November 2020 and reciprocal naval attacks in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, a secret war between Israel and Iran continues in Syria. Although no one is particularly looking for open conflict, the escalation risk is high and could involve Hezbollah in Lebanon.