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Iranian academics still divided over nuclear deal

As proponents of Iran's nuclear deal point to its achievements, some Iranian academics discuss their criticism of the deal with Al-Monitor.
Iranian students hold placards during a rally at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization to mark the country's national day of nuclear technology April 9, 2007. The billboard reads: "As a local achievement, nuclear energy is a source of pride for Iran and the world of Islam".   REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN) - RTR1OGOY

TEHRAN, Iran — Just over a year after the signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, Iranians are divided over its achievements and weaknesses. There is no sign of the celebrations in the streets of Tehran that followed the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July 14, 2015, let alone praise of Iran’s nuclear negotiators on social media.

Indeed, according to a recent survey by — an independent polling firm based in Canada — for the University of Maryland, 74% of Iranians believe their lives have not improved after the JCPOA, while a great portion accuse the United States of not fulfilling its commitments under the deal. The survey also shows that public awareness among Iranians of the dimensions of the JCPOA has increased dramatically.

One of the reasons for the increasing public awareness of the provisions of the JCPOA is the extensive debate over the deal in the local press and on Iranian state TV.

Tehran University professor Foad Izadi is one of the most prominent critics of the JCPOA. He has frequently criticized the negotiations, the terms of the deal and its implementation in meetings, forums and interviews. When asked about the achievements of the JCPOA, Izadi told Al-Monitor that they are on paper rather than in practice. Pointing at the recent accord between the Central Bank of Iran and the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, Izadi said, “This agreement shows that Iran has not been able to achieve the advantages, including free trade and financial transactions, incorporated in the JCPOA. Despite this, in order to reach this goal, Iran had already given advantages to the other side during the negotiations.”

On June 25, the Central Bank of Iran announced, “After the approval of the Law to Combat Financing of Terrorism in the Iranian parliament and considering other appropriate measures incorporated in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering in its latest statement said that for the first time, it has moved Iran from the bottom of the list to a higher level.”

The deal's critics in Tehran also frequently bring up “excessive demands” on the part of the United States.

Mohammad Jamshidi, also a professor at Tehran University, is another critic of the JCPOA. He thinks that at the tactical level, the Iranian side’s negotiating method caused the “excessive demands,” telling Al-Monitor, “In the [April 2013] Almaty 2 meeting, the Western side had given in [to Iran’s initiative] in the negotiations room and asked for more time to get some advice from their high-ranking officials. Next, the American side announced that it would wait for the results of Iran’s [June 2013] presidential elections. The simple fact is that because the Iranian initiative for an agreement was so logical, the other side could not reject it. They only hoped for change within Iran.”

Seeing a grander US scheme at play, Jamshidi told Al-Monitor, “America expects to change Iran’s mentality and regional behavior. In fact, the United States does not look at the JCPOA as a mere nuclear deal.” However, he added, “This kind of attitude results from a misperception of Iranian society.” Jamshidi emphasized, “Over the past eight years, Iranian society has tested America and witnessed a huge difference between beautiful words and hostile acts.” In Jamshidi’s telling, the most important achievement of the JCPOA is that “it has led [Iranian] society and also elites to the conclusion that negotiation with the United States will not be the solution to the country’s problems and that we must rely on domestic power resources.”

Proponents of the deal in Tehran often point to the change in global attitudes toward Iran and its nuclear program as one of the positive outcomes of the JCPOA. Indeed, the termination of UN Security Council sanctions, the closing of the possible military dimensions file with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the move to normalize relations with the world have all helped improve views of Iran.

Nasser Hadian, a professor of international relations at Tehran University, does not view the JCPOA as a zero-sum game. Rather, Hadian told Al-Monitor he considers the bringing of the nuclear issue onto the path of “de-securitization” and the normalization of Iran’s ties with the world as the most important achievements of the JCPOA. However, he believes that some US sanctions that remain in place violate the spirit of the nuclear deal. He said, “The lack of strategic coherence in Iran’s demands and advantages contrasted sharply with the other side’s coherent demands.”

Meanwhile, Hadian predicted potential gloom ahead. “Although the JCPOA will remain in force, America after [President Barack] Obama will push to strengthen the sanctions regime. While the [US] federal government is now trying to keep the sanctions under its control, the [individual] states will continue to adhere to their own bans and bring them out of the federal government’s prerogative. Therefore, implementation of the JCPOA will be harder in the future,” he said.

While the JCPOA was signed just over a year ago, it was only formally implemented in mid-January. Given the long duration of the negotiations and the history of hostility between Iran and the United States, some Iranian experts say it's impossible to predict what will happen to the JCPOA and its goals. Nader Entessar, a professor of international relations at the University of South Alabama, has over the past year offered extensive analyses of the various dimensions of the JCPOA, many of them in his book “Iran Nuclear Negotiations,” which analyzes the steps of the process of the negotiations and their outcomes. Entessar told Al-Monitor, “Although the hoped-for benefits of the JCPOA have not yet been felt by the Iranian people, the jury is still out about the long-term viability of the nuclear deal. The next US president and Congress will determine if the JCPOA is a mirage or not."

While it is hard to quantify the political and security implications of the JCPOA, its impact on the Iranian economy, though greatly contested, is perhaps easier to decipher. Prominent economic analyst Saeed Laylaz told Al-Monitor he expects relative gains from the nuclear deal and that he sees the successes of the administration of President Hassan Rouhani in the economic sphere, such as the reduction of inflation and expansion of oil exports, as positive achievements of the JCPOA that cannot be ignored. While these benefits have yet to trickle down, Laylaz concluded, “It is wrong to [immediately] expect the effects of the full removal of sanctions on the economy, as they were not imposed overnight. The economy, which for many years has suffered from sanctions, needs time to recover.”

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