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Ali Khamenei reading Holy Quran

Iran’s Shifting Nuclear Debate and the Shrinking Space for Diplomacy

Azadeh Zamirirad
Commentary, 16 February 2021
Iran's Nuclear Programme, Iranian Nuclear Pathways, United States, Unpacking the MENA, Iran
Diplomacy has only a narrow window of opportunity, as the nuclear debate inside Iran remains volatile.

Both Iran and the US have declared that they are willing to come back into full compliance with the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, as each side is waiting for the other to take the first step, there is an increasing risk of ending up with no nuclear compromise at all. Europeans should be careful not to overestimate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s readiness to hold on to the JCPOA while underestimating the role of nuclear discourse in the Islamic Republic.

There has been a lively public debate in Iranian politics on nuclear issues since 2002, with vastly differing positions on which diplomatic approach would suit Iran’s national interests best. These debates have been an essential part of nuclear decision-shaping for the past two decades. As the main responsibility for the nuclear file was transferred from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to the Supreme National Security Council, a multilevel process of formal and informal consultations was put in place that was meant to aid the Supreme Leader in his decision-making. Public political discourse continuously fed into that process.

Khamenei has been mindful of the overall political climate and has allowed for several nuclear policy changes to be made throughout the years: from the temporary suspension of enriching any uranium to an enrichment grade of 20% under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to greenlighting the JCPOA that heavily restricted Iran’s nuclear activities across the board. If the past is any indication, Khamenei is likely to change his position again when two circumstances coincide: public political discourse shifting in favour of disengagement; and a stalemate in nuclear talks with no credible resolution in sight.

Back to 2004

Today’s domestic trajectory is in many ways reminiscent of 2004, when conservative hardliners won a majority in parliament and started work on legislation that would later urge the government to expand the civilian programme, restrict cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend voluntary measures. Critics of the reformist government’s engagement policy with the E3 (Germany, France and the UK) gained political ground as it became increasingly clear that nuclear talks had reached a dead end and no further progress would be likely under the existing framework. Based on new legislation, Tehran notified the IAEA in August 2005 about its decision to resume activities at the Uranium Conversion Facility near Isfahan. Thus, when Ahmadinejad was elected president later that month, a nuclear policy shift was already underway. The changed political climate allowed him to move swiftly towards expanding Iran’s nuclear programme while taking a decidedly confrontational stance in international negotiations.

As in 2004, the current nuclear debate in Iran has become much harsher in tone. Conservative hardliners have reclaimed a majority in parliament and passed legislation urging the government of President Hassan Rohani to enrich uranium to 20% once again and to suspend the Additional Protocol if a 21 February deadline expires without tangible US sanctions relief. And much like 2004, Europeans and Iranians have exhausted their means to move forward on their own, despite Russian and Chinese support this time around. In some regards, the current conditions are even worse than they were in 2004, as Iran has now seen the outcome of a nuclear deal. Due to the negative experience of the JCPOA, long-held assumptions within the Iranian political discourse about the lack of US willingness and the absence of European abilities to uphold a nuclear compromise have been confirmed, leaving a much bigger credibility deficit to overcome.

Arguments put forward by groups that were fundamentally opposed to the nuclear compromise, such as the hardline Endurance Front, once obscure outliers in Iran’s nuclear debate, have now become much more acceptable. Shifts can also be observed among the general population. Approval rates for the JCPOA have plummeted in recent years. As Iranians did not economically benefit from the nuclear deal in any substantial way, support for the agreement dropped from 76% in 2015 to a little more than 40% at the end of 2019.

A Different Pathway 

Under these circumstances, it would not be entirely unreasonable for the Iranian leadership to give up on the JCPOA by letting it fall apart. Iran could be inclined to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and further accelerate its nuclear programme until it is on the verge of breakout. This would significantly increase Iran’s power projection and deterrence capacities, even without building a single nuclear weapon. Given the high price that Tehran has already paid in terms of sanctions, assassinations, cyber attacks and other acts of sabotage, proponents of such a path could argue that at this point the long-term strategic gains far outweigh any additional harm that might be imposed by external actors and would thus be worth the risk.

Moreover, as Iran’s economic outlook appears to be less grim, with an expected positive growth rate, even if sanctions were to remain in place, many in Tehran believe that today the Islamic Republic is much better equipped to withstand ongoing economic pressure and that sanctions are no longer an existential threat to the Iranian economy or to the political system.

A changing nuclear rationale could be further cemented by the presidential elections in June. As things stand, right-wing candidates from the conservative spectrum are in a favourable position to win. While a victory by a hardliner would not necessarily mean a more confrontational nuclear policy, any new cabinet will find itself in a domestic environment much more willing to change course. 

Things could get even more complicated should Khamenei no longer be able to exercise his powers due to illness or death. Given Iran’s domestic fault lines and the current volatility of its power struggles, there is a high degree of uncertainty over how the transition period might unfold and how it would impact nuclear talks or any additional agreements that both Europe and the US are hoping to reach.

No Time to Lose

Europeans should not take the current dynamics in Iran lightly. While Iran’s nuclear advancements are worrisome, the biggest challenge remains political. Unlike most technological steps, a major policy shift cannot be easily reversed. Thus, Europeans should focus on disincentivising Tehran from turning its back on the JCPOA at a time when this is still achievable.

A harsher public stance by the E3 and continued posturing will not prevent Tehran from suspending the Additional Protocol once the 21 February deadline expires and will only contribute to the downward spiral when de-escalatory measures are needed.

The Iranian leadership is still holding on to the nuclear agreement in light of potential sanctions relief under the Biden administration. Tehran might not expect an economic collapse anytime soon, but it is aware of how sanctions continue to slow and hamper Iran’s overall economic development. This is still what makes the prospect of sanctions relief an effective incentive. However, the window of opportunity is closing.

Tehran will not take another leap of faith solely on the basis of Biden not being Trump. A clear sign from Washington is needed to remove serious doubts about the new administration’s intentions. Biden could start by easing Iran’s access to its foreign exchange reserves to use for sanctions-exempt trade or even revoke his predecessor’s executive order to withdraw from the JCPOA to send a clear message. Europeans should encourage Washington to make the first move and to take concrete action, ideally before 21 February.

The deadline is a critical juncture, but it does not have to turn into the tipping point for the nuclear deal. It is not too late to bring all sides back into full compliance and build on the agreement through follow-on talks. While the process itself will take months, initiating it is a matter of days. The Supreme Leader may be the ultimate decision-maker in Iran, but he does not operate in a political vacuum. The nuclear debate in Iran is gradually shifting. The sooner the compliance process starts, the more it reduces the risk of domestic obstacles in Iran snowballing into an avalanche.

Azadeh Zamirirad is Deputy Head of the Middle East and Africa Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reading the Holy Quran. Courtesy of khamenei.ir/Wikimedia Commons/http://farsi.khamenei.ir/photo-album?id=29866

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