Negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; known as the “Iran Deal”) have fallen flat after nearly two years of efforts to renew the agreement by both the United States and Iran. While many factors have contributed to the near-death of negotiations between the long-time rivals, Iran’s most recent protest movement is playing a central role in disrupting the talks between Washington and Tehran. This falls against the backdrop of an increasingly sophisticated nuclear program inside Iran, presenting a dangerous scenario in which a faltering autocratic state faces widespread unrest and economic freefall due to Western sanctions.
The latest round of negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and Iran occurred in Vienna, Austria, between August 3-8. During this round, European Union high representative Josep Borrell announced he shared a “final” draft of a restored JCPOA. Washington and Tehran continued to negotiate indirectly through the E3 (United Kingdom, France, and Germany) and EU as comments were shared and applied to the draft text.
This continued until early September when Iran sent two successive letters outlining strict demands outside of what had been previously discussed in the so-called final draft. According to leaked Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) bulletins, it is understood that Iran demanded: first, to close the International Atomic Energy Agency’s breach of safeguards case against Iran and to not bring any further claims; second, that “companies that do business with the IRGC should not be sanctioned”; and, third, the United States must provide assurances that it will remain in the JCPOA.
This understandably threw a wrench into the negotiations, causing Western states to question Iran’s intentions and interest in renewing the deal. To be sure, Iran’s demand for improved guarantees is warranted given former U.S. president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018, which caused the current fiasco. Regardless, this delay could be identified as the death knell to the deal, as while both Washington and Tehran have continued indirect communications through interlocutors such as Qatar, Iran’s latest protest movement exploded into the streets.
Protests have managed to sustain themselves since the murder of Mahsa Amini (Jina Amini) on September 16, with an escalatory and repressive response from Tehran in the process. The protests mark a major moment for the Islamic Republic as they began by targeting one of the core pillars of the regime—namely, mandatory hijab policies—before expanding to calls for regime change, provoking suspicion and accusations from Iran’s leaders that this was a plot by foreign countries to topple the government in Tehran.
Understandably, Washington chose to temporarily cut off JCPOA negotiations due to Iran’s brutal repression of the protests to avoid sending the wrong message, unleashing a substantial wave of new sanctions on Tehran’s oil smuggling networks and security and justice officials involved in repressing the protests. Such decisions are intended to pressure the Islamic Republic to soften its stance against the protestors and institute reforms. However, they also help fuel Iranian suspicions of foul play and foreign interference. Real or imagined, this perception matters for the higher-level negotiations focused on the nuclear file.
Ultimately, the Biden administration’s decision to pause negotiations and institute deeper sanctions, coupled with overt rhetorical support for the protestors, is eliciting a negative response out of Tehran that only harm the chances of a successful JCPOA renegotiation. The Iranian leadership is notoriously anti-American and views Washington’s actions with suspicion due to its revolutionary ideology as well as many unjust U.S. foreign policy decisions of the past. Most importantly, Tehran could come to see the pause in negotiations running in parallel with the protest movement as a foreign plot to force them into a bad deal or reforms that weaken their regime. This could have drastic implications that spiral out of control.
In the worst-case scenario, Iran could respond to the protest movement by escalating the nuclear file, as it has in the past to achieve its foreign policy objectives. This could include increasing its enrichment capacities to 90 percent—allowing it to develop nuclear weapons. While Tehran has repeatedly stated that it does not seek to develop nuclear weapons, it is not difficult to picture the Islamic Republic doing so to build leverage if it believes the protest movement, with the backing of foreign powers, presents an existential threat to its survival. The situation could quickly unravel from here.
If the protests continue and the regime elects to increase its nuclear capabilities out of a desire to survive, the world will be presented with a scenario in which a highly unstable country has developed nuclear weapons. As many experts have noted, while the Islamic Republic’s collapse or reform would be welcomed so long as it brings a stable and representative governance system, the ensuing unrest will likely be horrific. Who will ensure that nuclear materials, equipment, and knowledge are secure should turmoil envelop a country of 85 million people in a notoriously unstable region?
Of equal importance are the regional implications. Following Saudi minister of foreign affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud recent statement that “If Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off,” it is clear that any escalation on the nuclear file will prompt an equal response from the growing anti-Iran camp. This means nuclear proliferation in the Gulf—namely, Saudi Arabia—as well as a drastically expanded arms race already long underway. None of this is good for U.S. interests in the region, let alone the common good.
Thus, while solidarity with an honorable protest movement and support for women and the working class more broadly is welcomed and should be central to any U.S. foreign policy, Washington is making a mistake by pausing the JCPOA negotiations. Indeed, U.S. officials should recognize that they can express solidarity while negotiating a deal that will prove crucial for regional and global security as these items are not mutually exclusive within broader U.S.-Iran relations. Simply put, the nuclear file changes all considerations and should be viewed with the highest level of risk aversion possible. The case of Iran is no different.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.