Iranians and the nuclear deal

President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is not merely undermining his moderate Iranian counterpart but also the longer-term prospect of US engagement with Iran.

al-monitor Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammon, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (L to R) pose for a group picture at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Joe Klamar/Pool.

Nov 9, 2018

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that President Donald Trump has derided as "disastrous" almost from the beginning of his campaign for office — and that members of his administration have with increasing intensity criticized, with national security adviser John Bolton having gone on record as preferring to bomb Iran than negotiate with it — is clearly dead as far as the United States is concerned. With the reimposed US sanctions implemented Nov. 5 — which are designed to be as "crippling" if not more so than the Barack Obama-engineered pre-JCPOA sanctions — the deal is now possibly in its last gasps with the Europeans too. While ordinary Americans might by and large not be mourning or even thinking about it, the accord did once embody the hopes of a generation of young Iranians — paradoxically the very men and women who most admiredly view the United States, its culture and its liberal democracy.

I was recently talking to one such Iranian, an artist and more recent immigrant to the United States whom I had met for the first time. I wondered now that she had a green card if she would become a citizen when she became eligible. “Ordinarily, sure; that would be nice,” she replied half-heartedly. She added, “But I don’t think I’d be happy to be a citizen of a country whose president is this man.” I replied that one could easily have said that about being Iranian during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), who was considered, at least by many Iranian youths, to be both uncouth and a national embarrassment. She smiled and said, “Yes, or even the current president.” I was surprised, as it was precisely people like her who had twice enthusiastically voted Hassan Rouhani into office. “Yes,” she continued, “We had such high hopes, and he’s not been able to do anything for anyone.”

Many Iranians — and the majority of them, like the artist, are under 30 — are disillusioned. Some inside Iran have taken to the streets in the last year to vent their anger at almost everything that affects them, while many of those outside Iran hold little hope for a future there and have no intention of returning — something that was a serious proposition (and even a reality) for some in the diaspora during Rouhani’s first term (2013-17). Almost two years into Trump’s presidency, however, what has been to them the slow death of the nuclear deal has dimmed any enthusiasm they once held for a brighter future. In that enthusiasm that was sparked over five years ago, after the dark period that marked Ahmadinejad’s second term (2009-13), reform-minded Iranians were willing to forgive their government if it couldn’t immediately deliver on its promise of a more open society or in ending human rights abuses: Its stated priority was to resolve the nuclear crisis so that it could then deliver on its promise of a less restrictive, more inclusive society once the country had reintegrated into the community of nations. (Obama’s administration had hoped for the same thing, although its members argue that it would have been an added bonus and not the raison d'etre of the nuclear agreement.)

A little over a year into the implementation of the nuclear deal, Iranians felt confident enough in Rouhani’s promises that despite little, if any, improvement in their living standards or in the reforms that many sought, they re-elected him in a landslide. Two months into Rouhani’s second term, however, Trump’s refusal to certify the deal as meeting congressional requirements first signaled to them that their hopes might have been badly misplaced. It was perhaps no coincidence, then, that only a few months later the first serious unrest since 2009 erupted on the streets of even small towns and villages in Iran. The "anti-compulsory hijab protests" by women that followed were a natural progression in the expression of dissatisfaction the population feels in almost every aspect of their lives, including strict and restrictive morality laws, and the sense of failure many Iranians feel in their government. The rapid depreciation of the Iranian currency is also symptomatic of a deep malaise in Iranian society today, as demand for dollars and euros by ordinary folk skyrocketed in anticipation of and as a hedge against even worse or more turbulent economic times after Nov. 5.

While that malaise cannot be entirely blamed on Trump, the sense of hopelessness that has befallen many young Iranians is without doubt partly because the deal has delivered virtually none of its promises to the Iranian people. The wild celebrations in the streets by mostly young Iranians that followed the conclusion of the agreement in 2015; the hero’s welcome that Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister and chief negotiator, received on his return to Tehran; and the massive turnout to re-elect Rouhani less than a year later let everyone know that the JCPOA was their deal and was struck to secure their future. Things were looking up economically, yes — but also for future engagement with the West, politically and socially. Their deal has now let them down, though, and it looks to many like it will abandon them entirely very soon.

The JCPOA’s death knell, regardless of what the remaining signatories do to try to salvage it in some form and even if it holds on to dear life for the remainder of Trump’s current term, will, most importantly, mark the end of Rouhani’s engagement policy; of his quest to bring prosperity and stability to his country by bringing Iran in from the cold, first with the nuclear deal and then through the entente that he expected would follow; and of his attempts to bring about any meaningful change for the average Iranian. Some are now comparing Rouhani’s presidency to that of Reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who was the first Iranian president to insist on engagement with the world. He defined it as "Dialogue Among Civilizations," and the conceit was designated at the United Nations for its inability to bring about any true reform. But the demise of the nuclear deal may also mark the end of any future Iranian government’s attempts at an engagement policy. That may be music to Bolton’s ears especially, but the ensuing loss it will entail will not be felt by the Islamic Republic’s leadership — those whom he and others in the administration hold such contempt for (and whose hard-liners within will likely celebrate the deal’s practical if not actual demise) — but by a generation of young Iranians whose dreams of a better future will have been broken. They — and there are many — will assuredly not be thanking America.

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