While over 200 Iranians have been killed in the crackdown since the tragic death of Mahsa Amini last month at the hands of the “morality” police, the unrest is likely strengthening two parallel dynamics inside the establishment that were already shaping Iranian behavior: insularity and indecisiveness. This will greatly influence the fate of President Joe Biden’s effort to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
That’s because, in Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s mind, compromise begets expectations for more compromise. Now more than ever, Khamenei will want to portray strength in his dealings with the international community. And with speculation surrounding Khamenei’s longevity, the disciples who are competing to succeed him, chiefly President Ebrahim Raisi and the supreme leader’s influential son, Mojtaba Khamenei, are likely to be risk-averse in the months ahead.
The United States and its allies should realize the limitations of their current strategy in influencing internal dynamics in Iran, shake up their approach, and cast their lot with the brave Iranian protesters at the expense of a delegitimized Iranian establishment that believes there will always be a standing offer of a bailout for nuclear concessions.
The 2009 Precedent
This is not the first time that Khamenei’s grip on Iran has been tested. The Green Movement protests over the June 2009 disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rocked the foundations of the Islamic Republic. The unrest was brutally suppressed, with Khamenei warning at the time: “I will not succumb to illegal innovation.”
Only months after, as Tehran continued to reel from the episode, the United States and its partners negotiating with Tehran over its nuclear program thought they had reached an agreement in principle for Iran to ship out the majority of its low-enriched uranium stockpile in exchange for the fuel needed for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). They were wrong. Iran backtracked in what then-U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Glyn Davies later called “an early indication of the degree of Iranian reticence toward reaching a deal with outside powers. Or at least, an early sign of the difficult domestic political context in which the TRR deal would be judged in Tehran.” Thus, in the end, popular protests alone did not moderate Iranian nuclear decision-making.
Neither did protests change the regime’s calculus in the aftermath of the 2019 gas protests, when up to 1,500 Iranians were killed during the height of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The Iranian leadership did not come to the table on U.S. terms. Fast forward to 2022, the TRR proposal is a very different negotiating product than a revived JCPOA. Moreover, the current protests are of a more threatening mix than previous iterations.
Nevertheless, the contextual driver of Iranian decision-making remains similar: domestic unrest. And as in 2009, regime officials have continued their uncompromising nuclear stance. A new IAEA report indicates that Iran continues to expand its ability to enrich uranium with advanced centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant. Thus, judging by the Iranian government’s past behavior, this desire to showcase defiance amid a domestic legitimacy crisis will likely continue—at the very least until after the U.S. congressional midterm elections and perhaps beyond.
The combination of increasingly vocal and violent public defiance and the reported health problems of Iran’s supreme leader also stands to gum up the Islamic Republic’s decision-making process on major issues.
Though Khamenei’s health appears to have rebounded in recent weeks, his underlying conditions and advanced age have raised the stakes on the jockeying for power among those vying to succeed him. Speculation abounds about the competition between Raisi and Mojtaba Khamenei in this contest.
Some reports suggest the Raisi-nominated Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib was part of a faction that successfully pushed for the ouster of Hossein Taeb, the recently dismissed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO) and a close associate of Khamenei’s son. The IRGC-IO’s one-time deputy commander, another integral member of Mojtaba Khamenei’s power network, is also thought to have been quietly replaced. Allies of the supreme leader’s influential son have been chipped away.
Now, amid indications of an impasse in Iran’s security infrastructure over the protests, Mojtaba Khamenei’s role in coordinating with the IRGC and the Basij, a paramilitary force under the auspices of the IRGC, from his father’s office is under greater scrutiny. Repression in the Islamic Republic can be a double-edged sword; Tehran likely feels the need to clamp down, but overreaching could invite more ferocious pushback from the Iranian people. Cracks have already started to emerge at the top, as some members of the Supreme National Security Council, namely the speaker of parliament and the chief justice, have expressed wariness over the direction of the protests, making conciliatory pleas to the public. Reuters has also reported that officials are “apparently unable to close ranks behind an agreed response to the turmoil,” with succession discussions complicating things. Mojtaba Khamenei will thus tread carefully to avoid leaving his fingerprints on the Iranian response, as the protesters are already calling for his head.
This maxim also likely extends to Raisi on the nuclear file. Already, before the latest protests, a lack of consensus on reviving the nuclear deal was preventing its resurrection in Iran. While Khamenei remains the decision maker and has been disinclined to revive the accord, Israeli assessments depicted some decision-shapers like Raisi as “reluctant to accept a deal that could be considered a failure or a concession in the eyes of the public.”
Thus, given the succession contest and his ambitions, Raisi is likely to be risk-averse, and uncertainty over Khamenei’s staying power will only reinforce this aversion.
Barring a policy change in the United States and Europe, these dynamics make continued inconclusive nuclear negotiations probable. While the Islamic Republic may be capable of offering concessions on tactical matters to momentarily deflect international scrutiny—it did so in December 2019 with the release of U.S. hostage Xiyue Wang in the wake of the gas protests—that doesn’t necessarily hold for more significant decisions like reviving the nuclear deal.
Accordingly, the United States and its European partners should be wary of continuing to plead with the Iranian authorities to accept billions of dollars in sanctions relief as part of a revived JCPOA, which risks empowering the same repressive entities and individuals that the Iranian people are rebelling against. Doing so would only incentivize Iranian policymakers to double down on their oppression and intransigence.
Instead, the West should implement a significant external pressure campaign of diplomatic isolation, multilateral sanctions, and the development of a credible military threat. Europe should downgrade diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic—especially in London, where a representative of the supreme leader inexplicably still maintains an office. The Iranian government responds to diplomatic isolation. In 1997, after the European Union withdrew its ambassadors over Iranian terrorism, Tehran quickly sought to repair relations.
The United States and its allies should also consider forming an international Iranian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (IEPO) Task Force, modeled after the existing task force on Russia, to harmonize sanctions and their enforcement against those who contribute to the regime’s support for terrorism, hostage taking, and human rights violations, along with their families who use jurisdictions, particularly in Canada and Europe, to profit off illicit wealth. Combined, this could help shake the Iranian system and sharpen its choices. Telegraphing that it will not be business as usual while siding with Iran’s Generation Z rather than its ossified persecutors is an investment worth making for the West.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research focus includes Iranian leadership dynamics, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy and partner network. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.