On the Iranian street, prospect of revived nuclear deal sparks economic hope

Most Iranians support a return to the deal but many think the country’s leaders are working to promote their own interests rather than those of average citizens, experts say

Iranians shout slogans during a protest against President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY)
Iranians shout slogans during a protest against President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018.

The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, in which Tehran promised to halt its uranium enrichment in return for an end to stringent economic sanctions, was seen by ordinary Iranians as a chance for a more prosperous life and at least a partial end to the regime’s isolation in the world. When the deal was announced,young Iranians celebrated openly in the streets. But when, in 2018, the US unilaterally pulled out of the deal and reapplied sanction, the benefits of the agreement proved to be short-lived. Yet the optimism that came with the agreement did not entirely dissipate as it fell apart. With the news now full of speculation that a revived nuclear agreement may be imminent, ordinary Iranians are once again hoping for improved economic conditions.

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The nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was first signed in 2015 between the Islamic Republic and six major world powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States – led by then-US President Barack Obama.

Why did the US pull out of Iran agreement? And will it return?

The US abandoned the agreement in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, who, citing a lack of Iranian compliance and poor deal-making by his predecessor, reinstated sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Iran in turn said it would resume its uranium enrichment unfettered and unhindered by any commitments under the agreement. USPresident Joe Biden, who served as vice president in the Obama Administration, swiftly moved to rekindle the agreement once he was sworn into office in January 2021.

 Attempts to return to the agreement to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activity – and specifically its push to build an atomic bomb – have been the subject of a plethora of think pieces, analyses, and interviews as the sides inch toward their final goal. But conspicuously missing from the discourse is the perspective of the ordinary Iranianpeople, whose political opinions are generally suppressed or at best ignored by a regime infamous for paying mere lip service to the principles of democracy.

So what do the Iranian people truly believe about a return to the deal with the international community that would again see Iran freeze uranium enrichment in return for an end to American sanctions?

According to Dr. Alam Saleh, lecturer in Iranian Studies at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, most Iranians are extremely positive about a return to the deal and frustrated with their own leaders that the process is taking so long.

Iranians “do care about everything that is going on in the country and in politics, and the nuclear deal is something that they are following so seriously,” Saleh told The Media Line from Tehran, where he is visiting relatives.

“Generally speaking, people are deeply frustrated with the long and ongoing negotiations with no or little result and little impact on people’s lives in general and as a result due to the ongoing negotiations since 2015 people are seriously concerned about the outcome of the upcoming agreement,” he said.

“This is important not only economically but politically,” he says. Iranians want to see whether government officials care about them “or are they only looking at the issue from the state’s point of view and not necessarily people.”

The people were supportive of the deal “from the very beginning” of the process under former US president Obama, Saleh told The Media Line. “They wanted it to be done quickly and they wanted their government to consider their interests and not the state's interests.”

The eagerness to return to the deal, Saleh said, is a reflection of the eagerness with which Iranians welcomed the agreement signed in 2015 for the economic benefits it brought with it after years of international sanctions.

“This is the reason why people are so frustrated,” he said. “From 2015 to 2018, people saw that the agreement had affected them positively, so profoundly. These three years of a relatively good economic situation and low inflation raised people's expectations. And that's why since 2018, the issue is even more frustrating because people experienced a relatively good time from 2015 to 2018. So for the last four years, people are asking why not do the deal again and get things back to 2016 and 2017.”

Saleh said Iranians mainly blame their own leadership for the slow return to the nuclear agreement. “They consider this as hard-liners focusing on their own interests: They are selfish, they are greedy, they do not care.”

He said there is only a small minority that is happy to see the negotiations continue without a real resolution. This minority, he said, “believe in nuclear power, believe in Iran shifting its position from the West to the East and [getting] rid of the West entirely.”

Nazila Fathi, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute and the author of The Lonely War, One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran, also told The MediaLine that the financially stricken people of Iran saw the deal as a way of improving their lives.

In fact, she said, they are presented with a near-uniform stream of information about the agreement that reflects the position of the ruling regime. And the benefits to the economy are given prominence.

“The government of President Ebrahim Raisi is pitching [the revival of the agreement] as an issue that his government is pursuing seriously while making the country’s national interests and economy a high priority,” Fathi said.

 Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi attends a news conference in Tehran, Iran August 29, 2022 (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS) Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi attends a news conference in Tehran, Iran August 29, 2022 (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS)

“It is clear that he wants to tell the public that his government has resumed the talks with a much more uncompromising position than the previous government. Iranian state television seems to have endorsed this position and is not expressing much dissent.”

Like Saleh, Fathi said that only sporadic dissent can be seen within the country, and agrees it is from “hard-liners who have been against a nuclear agreement.” Nonetheless, she said, “it’s difficult to tell how much influence they have if the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has given the green light for the talks to proceed.”

Fathi said the opposition also touts the fiscal benefits of the agreement, but that they are being presented as “a good thing for the government and bad for the people. According to them, a deal will pour money into the regime's coffers and make it even more oppressive.”

But these opposition claims tend to have less of an effect on the street, she said. After all, the country has already seen that an end to international embargos can lead to greater national prosperity, in particular when the economy is in poor shape. “I don’t think there is serious opposition to the deal among ordinary people, especially once they know that with a nuclear deal, economic sanctions will be lifted and the economy will improve,” she said, echoing Saleh’s words.

“The economy is in horrible shape, people are under enormous pressure, and it’s unclear how the economy can survive under the pressure of the sanctions,” she said. Ultimately, Fathi said, the most pressing concern for the man and woman on the street is coping with the country’s struggling economy.

“Ordinary Iranians only care about putting food on their tables now,” she said. “If any kind of deal can improve things, they will embrace it.”