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The Takeaway: Are protests an incentive for Iran to close nuclear deal? 

Israel’s shadow war with Iran; Gulf shifts to mass transportation; Turkey and Egypt reset ties; Israel targets Jenin camp; Hamas takes student council elections in West Bank.
Iran nuclear

Malley links ‘tenuous’ US Iran nuclear deal to Abraham Accords

Today’s column admittedly has a been-here-before feel.  

US Iran Envoy Robert Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today, Wednesday, May 25, that "as I speak to you today, we do not have a deal with Iran and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous." Elizabeth Hagedorn has the report on the hearing here.

And nonetheless, the slight hedge continues to be that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, still has a pulse. 

Here are four reasons why. 

The Iranian street has a vote  

  • The economic incentive for President Ebrahim Raisi’s government to close the nuclear deal has always been substantial, but now it’s even more so.  

  • "Iran is witnessing a new wave of social protest in reaction to the price hikes caused by the government’s reforms of direct and indirect subsidies," writes Bijan Khajehpour this week

  • Official statistics indicate inflation was at 42% in March. Iran’s official unemployment rate is over 11%; it's probably much higher. 

The price of oil 

  • Iran’s oil exports to China have declined as a result of China’s COVID-19 lockdowns and rising imports of lower-priced Russian oil, Reuters reports

  • If Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, and gets sanctions lifted on its energy and financial sectors, among other benefits, Iran could likely quickly double its oil exports from 1 million to 2 million barrels per day (bpd), and take advantage of oil prices in the $110 per barrel range. 

EU shuttle diplomacy 

  • Ali Hashem, in Iran earlier this month, got the scoop from official sources that a new Iranian proposal on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps issue, presented to EU Envoy Enrique Mora, included "revisited ideas" that are not IRGC "centric."  

  • Iran continues to seek guarantees from the Biden administration that it will adhere to the deal as long as it is in office.  

Watch the regional traffic 

  • The Iran nuclear deal is, on paper, not about regional security, except that, indirectly, it is woven into an enhanced deterrent posture and diplomatic initiatives by the US and many of the key players in the Middle East, and affecting developments in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.

  • Malley said Wednesday that the Biden administration is committed to building on the JCPOA, if agreed, "to seek a broader, follow-on diplomatic outcome that enjoys strong congressional backing; and, throughout, coordinating closely with Europe and, crucially, with Israel and our regional partners, against the backdrop of the Abraham Accords, to deter, counter and respond to the full array of Iranian threats and to credibly demonstrate that we will never permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon."

  • US President Joe Biden is planning to visit the Middle East at the end of June. Stops in Israel and the West Bank are confirmed; the rest of the itinerary, including a summit with regional partners, and possible trip to Saudi Arabia, is a work in progress, as Axios’ Barak Ravid reports.

Fast Facts on Iran (global rank): 

  • 17th in military spending ($19.6 billion), behind Saudi Arabia ($67.6 bil), UAE ($22.75 bil), and Israel ($20 bil) in the Middle East. 

  • 18th largest population of approximately 83.9 million behind only Egypt (102 million) and Turkey (84.3 million) in the Middle East. 

  • 18th largest economy (per GDP; $1.08 trillion), highest in the Middle East. 

From our regional correspondents

1. Israel-Iran shadow war intensifies 

Senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps member Hassan Sayyad Khodaei helped plot attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets before his assassination on Sunday, according to Israeli and Western intelligence assessments. Mossad is suspected in his killing, which comes as experts say the Israeli intelligence agency is operating on Iranian soil with growing intensity.  

“Israel’s counterterrorism campaign has spread from hitting Iranian facilities in Syria into Iran itself,” writes Ben Caspit. In a brazen episode last month, Mossad agents reportedly detained and interrogated a state-hired assassin in Iran. Caspit writes there are growing indications that Israel has shifted its attention from countering Iran’s nuclear program to its terrorist activities, entrenchment in Syria and precision missile adaptation.   

2. Car-centric Gulf weighs urban transport reform 

As Gulf Arab states seek to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the region’s dependency on cars is a major obstacle. Sebastian Castelier reports that heavily urbanized Gulf countries are trying to retrofit cities to encourage mass transit use. Dubai successfully launched the Gulf’s first metro network in 2009, followed by Doha a decade later. A long-discussed metro for Kuwait is “still in draft form.”  

The Gulf’s hot climate discourages walking and cycling in city centers, but “urban planning analysts believe the solution in the Gulf lies in air-conditioned multimodal transportation nodes where passengers can switch from a metro train to bus, tram or even micro-mobility.”

3. Turkey warms to Egypt in foreign policy reset  

Turkish Minister of Treasury and Finance Nureddin Nebati will visit Egypt next week, in what Rasha Mahmoud  calls a “significant step in Turkish-Egyptian bilateral relations following the rupturing of diplomatic ties in 2013.” But standing in the way of normalization is Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt considers a terrorist organization. 

Turkey has worked to reduce the group’s influence, including by shutting down the Brotherhood-affiliated satellite channel in Turkey. “Ankara — trying to improve its ties with Gulf capitals and Cairo — appears to have realized that the movement has turned from an asset to a liability,” writes Pinar Tremblay. For their part, Brotherhood members are increasingly wary of Egypt’s fence-mending with Turkey and Qatar.

4. Israel meets tough resistance in West Bank camp  

Israel has escalated its raids inside the Jenin refugee camp since veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead in the West Bank camp earlier this month. Ahmad Melhem reports that Israeli forces have faced fierce resistance from the camp’s armed fighters, who have responded to the raids with gunfire and explosives. The Jenin camp is witnessing a daily war of attrition,” writes Melhem. Following the shooting death of one of its officers, Israel is now reportedly considering using combat helicopters and drones to provide cover for its ground troops in Jenin.

5. Hamas student council elections in West Bank 

Hamas’ student wing, the Islamic Wafa bloc, scored a landslide victory in the student elections held this month at Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Hadeel Al Gherbawi writes that the election results reflect a shift in popular support for Hamas, which used a student debate to highlight the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority’s security coordination with Israel. “Students chose the resistance path,” a Gaza-based Islamic Wafa official told Al-Monitor. Such university elections provide students with a rare opportunity to vote in the Palestinian territories, which last held general elections in 2006.  

Multimedia this week: Egyptian ruins, Shireen Abu Akleh and Israel’s coalition 

Listen: Ben Caspit and Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Idan Roll discuss the future of Israel’s fragile coalition government.  

Watch: Egyptian archaeologists recently unearthed the ruins of a temple honoring the Greek God Zeus and Mount Cassius. 

Listen: Ben interviews strategic advisor Yarden Vatikay about the Israeli media’s coverage of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing.