The outpouring of protest in Iran after the brutal beating death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the “morality” police has further demonstrated the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s repressive government.
For decades, Iranians have chafed at the restrictions imposed by this system, the dwindling of even minimal political freedom and the ideologically driven foreign policies that have isolated Iran and stifled its economic potential. After the regime brutally suppressed the “Green Movement” demonstrations that followed fraud-tainted presidential elections in 2009, Iranians spoke of the “fire beneath the ashes” that would re-ignite at some time in the future. Amini’s arrest and untimely death over her supposedly insufficiently demure appearance have relit that flame.
Even if the regime succeeds in putting out the fire again this time, no one can have any doubt that this is a country in deep crisis. The question, as always, is how to help bring about positive change without causing massive casualties and turning an ancient country into yet another failed state in the Middle East.
As someone who has followed Iran closely for a quarter century, visited it many times and covered US foreign policy toward Iran, I know there are no easy answers. I also know that the United States does not have the option of ignoring the Islamic Republic, which has a dangerously expanding nuclear program and potent influence in its neighborhood.
The Biden administration has been trying for the past 18 months to revive a moribund nuclear agreement with Iran, not out of friendship for the Iranian government but out of a conviction that a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more dangerous and resistant to Western influence. One only has to look at North Korea for an example of a state that has used nuclear weapons to immunize itself against the softening of its totalitarian system.
A revived nuclear agreement with Iran would not just roll back its nuclear program — which hovers dangerously at the point of breakout — but lessen the sanctions that impoverish ordinary Iranians while filling the pockets of corrupt smuggling rings. It would allow Iranians to re-engage with Western businesspeople, particularly Europeans who desperately need new sources of energy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Iran would still be cut off from direct engagement with the U.S. financial system). The influx of oil revenue would prop up the Iranian currency, the riyal, and reduce inflation that is destroying the Iranian middle class and undermining civil society.
If the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) can be restored, it would also reinvigorate Iranian contacts with neighbors and help to de-escalate regional conflicts. It would likely lessen the chances for further military confrontation between the United States and Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria and improve the odds of prolonging and deepening the cease-fire in Yemen.
A revived JCPOA does not mean that the United States and other democratic countries stop advocating for more freedom for Iranians; in fact, it is the reverse. Not having to worry about a nuclear-armed Iran means there would be more diplomatic bandwidth to promote political change in Iran. The Biden administration showed last week that it is quite possible to support the JCPOA and the Iranian people at the same time when it issued a general license facilitating access to technology that helps Iranians communicate more easily with each other and the outside world.
The government of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi missed its chance to accept a nuclear deal before the latest outbreak of protests. It wasted an opportunity to clinch agreement at the UN General Assembly last week — where Raisi, at his New York debut, showed little candor or competence and was overshadowed by the news from home. It is now unlikely that negotiations can progress before U.S. midterm elections in November. Iranian officials will be wary of looking “weak” by dropping demands that have stymied agreement; the Biden administration will not want to do anything that could hurt the chances of Democrats to retain control over the U.S. Congress.
Eventually, however, talks will resume because there is no other viable option.
The United States cannot destroy Iran’s nuclear ambitions with bombs, and it will not go to war again in the Middle East to impose regime change in Tehran. Those who argue that it is wrong to dance with the “devil” and that only the “mullahs” will benefit from negotiations would be wise to consider the words of Richard Armitage, who lived in Iran before the 1979 revolution and served as deputy secretary of State to Colin Powell. “Diplomacy,” Armitage once told me, “is the art of letting the other guy have our way.”