How will the Iranian protests impact the nuclear deal?

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Protests are unlikely to topple the regime, which may respond with some kind of radical change in policy.

 IRANIANS WALK past a newspaper stall with a paper’s front page bearing a title reading in Farsi ‘The night of the end of the JCPOA,’ in Tehran last August.  (photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
IRANIANS WALK past a newspaper stall with a paper’s front page bearing a title reading in Farsi ‘The night of the end of the JCPOA,’ in Tehran last August.
(photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

Protests in Iran have been running now for over a month, leading more pundits to speculate about whether this time they might finally topple the regime.

While that scenario is still unlikely, there is a stronger likelihood that the regime may respond to the unusually long protests with some kind of a radical change in policy, whether on foreign affairs issues, such as the nuclear negotiations, or in military exchanges with opponents, such as Israel.

A change in policy could be either a tactical move to change the subject and distract the Iranian public from the ongoing protests, or to actually address some of the structural fundamental policy errors the regime has made which have allowed the protests to spread more than usual.

Two possible Iran Deal outcomes

REGARDING THE nuclear deal, there are at least two possibilities.

Feeling desperate, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could decide to go for broke and finally enrich uranium up to 90% weaponization levels.

 IRANIAN AMERICANS, including two people dressed up as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, rally outside the White House, last month, in support of anti-regime protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.  (credit: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters) IRANIAN AMERICANS, including two people dressed up as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, rally outside the White House, last month, in support of anti-regime protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini. (credit: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

This would not be the same as having a fully functional nuclear weapon, but would be a massive scientific and national achievement that could distract the public.

It would also set off a public war of words with Iran’s scapegoats, such as Israel and the US, and maybe even lead to further moves to isolate Iran diplomatically or economically.

Such a move might also lead Israel or the US to undertake new major covert or cyber operations against the Islamic Republic.

While all of these results would be negative for Khamenei in some ways, they might reduce enthusiasm for opposing the regime and produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect which might help Khamenei escape the protests.

Going further, if Khamenei’s nuclear team has mastered at least some detonation issues which we know they were working on as early as 1999-2003, he could order an underground nuclear test.

This would be an even greater nuclear achievement and bring an even harsher global response – which, again, might unify Iran even more against Israel and the US.

But these are very risky options.

Tehran’s economy is already in trouble from years of sanctions, especially nuclear sanctions, which are the broadest.

The current protests started ostensibly because the country’s morality police tortured and murdered a woman for insufficiently covering her hair, and because of general mistreatment of women.

Yet, one reason that the protests have spread more and lasted longer is the more general rotten economic situation.

Under these circumstances, doubling down on the nuclear issue in a way that could worsen the economic situation could still work for Khamenei, but is probably his riskiest option.

In contrast, moving forward with the nuclear deal would directly address the broad economic hardships.

Announcing a return to the nuclear deal and the eventual removal of sanctions could splinter the protesters, such that the country’s pragmatists might bow out of the protests and leave only the reformists to go it alone.

The pragmatists generally have no problem with the regime imposing religious limits on women, and are more upset about the economic situation or by the specific incident in which one woman was killed.

True, the regime said that the woman died by accident due to a preexisting illness. But this was at the point where it did not think a small retreat, such as hanging out to dry a few of its Basij thugs, would be enough to quell the protests.

If a nuclear deal was going forward with expected sanctions relief, Khamenei might reconsider tarring and feathering a few of the Basij to check the box for the pragmatists about the handling of the specific incident.

This could truly isolate the groups of liberal Iranians who oppose the regime’s religious oppression, but are a minority compared to the regime’s heartland supporters, its IRGC military-industrial complex and the pragmatists, recently led by former president Hassan Rouhani.

And it would not be hard to come to a formula with the US, since Washington is already ready to accept the deal proposed by the EU months ago with a series of reciprocal incremental moves by the sides in lifting sanctions, lifting nuclear limits and even eventually closing IAEA probes of illicit Iranian nuclear moves.

Mainly, Iran would need to let the IAEA probes remain open for several months and possibly longer, but it has plenty of experience with dragging out processes with international inspectors.

As long as he returned to the JCPOA’s nuclear limits, Khamenei would likely get the sanctions relief he wanted, even if the IAEA issues were not fully resolved, regardless of what the deal says.

However, looking at this option closer, there are major timing issues.

The deal offered by the EU is very incremental. It could take several months, even after a new deal is signed, before the sanctions relief kicks in, let alone before it trickles down to the average Iranian.

Some of this could be accelerated, if Khamenei accelerated his return to nuclear limits. But no matter what, there would be a delay.

Will Khamenei gamble that he can neutralize support for the protests simply by announcing that sanctions will eventually be lifted, without very much in hand for the protesters?

Would the pragmatist protesters go home without seeing their individual economic situations improve?

In other words, even if this move makes sense to rationally address the protesters’ complaints, it might just take too long, and letting the protests continue for several months until the positives of reduced sanctions trickle down might not be an option for the regime.

Choosing the right moment on Iran

BEYOND THE nuclear issue, Iran has sometimes distracted protesters with victories or by igniting conflicts in the region which are already heated.

Traditionally, it has many options for this: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, some of its militias in Syria.

But this might not be the best moment to pull out these options.

Hezbollah and Lebanon may be about to sign a maritime deal with Israel.

This does not mean the sides will not be at conflict in the future, but it does reduce the likelihood of any major conflict at this time.

Likewise, Islamic Jihad in Gaza took a pounding at the hands of the IDF during Operation Breaking Dawn in August.

No one thinks that this means Islamic Jihad is done firing rockets at Israel, but it is also unlikely to want to start another conflict now.

Syria has been a weak point for Iran recently, with the IDF’s “war between the wars” campaign mostly keeping Iranian proxies there off balance.

Yemen is probably the easiest place to make trouble, especially since the truce there recently expired.

The Houthis can also be used to fire rockets at the Saudis, which makes a lot of news and is lower-hanging fruit than hitting the better-defended Israel.

Terrorist attacks on Israelis is always an option, or hijacking various countries’ sea vessels, but these tactics have had limited success in recent years and made limited news.

Khamenei can always look to make more trouble in Iraq, but it is not clear right now, with the internal dynamics there, whether that would distract protesters or achieve anything, other than maybe alienating more Iraqi Shi’ites.

In sum, Khamenei has many options to change the subject from protests in the nuclear and military arena, but few good ones. Any new radical option he chooses is likely to carry its own heavy costs.