There is a long history of western powers fuelling public unrest in Iran, even pre-dating the establishment of the Islamic Republic. But what makes the on-going protests since mid-September unique is that Washington is also signalling interest in reaching an accommodation with Tehran under certain conditions.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated explicitly on 5 December that the US and a number of other western countries have incited riots, because “one of the US’ objectives was to force Iran to make big concessions at the negotiating table” for the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Amir-Abdollahian’s remark followed some megaphone diplomacy by US special envoy on Iran Rob Malley several days earlier. Speaking at a conference in Rome, Malley made the sensational disclosure that Washington is currently more focused on Tehran’s decision to arm Russia in Ukraine and the repression of its internal protests than on talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal:
“The more Iran represses, the more there will be sanctions; the more there are sanctions, the more Iran feels isolated. The more isolated they feel, the more they turn to Russia; the more they turn to Russia, the more sanctions there will be; the more the climate deteriorates, the less likely there will be nuclear diplomacy.”
“So it is true right now the vicious cycles are all self-reinforcing. The repression of the protests and Iran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine is where our focus is because that is where things are happening, and where we want to make a difference,” he added.
Why the US supports the protestors
In essence, Malley admitted that the Biden Administration is a stakeholder in the ongoing protests in Iran.
Importantly, he also hinted that although Tehran has taken a series of fateful decisions that make a full revival of the nuclear deal and a lifting of some economic sanctions a political impossibility for now, the door to diplomacy is not shut if Iran’s leadership changed course on relations with Russia.
In further remarks to Bloomberg the following day, Malley said that “Right now we can make a difference in trying to deter and disrupt the provision of weapons to Russia and trying to support the fundamental aspirations of the Iranian people.”
As he put it, Washington now aims to “disrupt, delay, deter and sanction” Iran’s weapon deliveries to Russia, as any supplies of missiles or assistance in the construction of military production facilities in Russia “would be crossing new lines.”
Malley has directly linked the US approach toward Iran’s protests with Tehran’s foreign and security policies with Moscow and indirect involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. While the protests in Iran began in mid-September, the first signs that the US intelligence was focusing on Iran-Russia military ties appeared somewhat earlier.
Arming Russia in Ukraine
In late July, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made an allegation during a media briefing at the White House that Iran wanted to sell “several hundred” weapons-capable unmanned aerial vehicles to Moscow.
Sullivan claimed that Iran was already training Russian personnel in using the drones. Within the week, Sullivan doubled down on that allegation.
The timing of Sullivan’s comments must be noted carefully – coinciding with a visit to Tehran by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 19 July. Certainly, Putin’s talks with the Iranian leadership indicated that a strategic polarization was under way between Moscow and Tehran with far-reaching consequences for regional and international politics.
The discussions in Tehran ranged from the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to the legality of western-led sanctions regimes, de-dollarization, geopolitics of energy, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and defense cooperation.
Following up on Putin’s discussions, Iran’s armed forces Chief of Staff, General Mohammad Bagheri travelled to Moscow in mid-October. Bagheri met Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, which signaled that the military relations between the two countries was acquiring irreversible momentum.
A fortnight after Bagheri’s visit, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev arrived in Tehran to discuss “various issues of Russian-Iranian cooperation in the field of security, as well as a number of international problems,” according to Interfax news agency.
Russian state media said Patrushev discussed the situation in Ukraine and measures to combat “western interference” in both countries’ internal affairs with his Iranian security counterpart Ali Shamkhani. Patrushev also met Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi during the trip.
According to the western assessment, there is disharmony within the Iranian establishment on how to handle the protests, and, in turn, this is sharpening internal debate about the wisdom of the growing alliance with Russia vis-à-vis re-engaging with the west in a fresh attempt to revive the nuclear deal, which the US withdrew from in 2018.
Pragmatism over protests
Clearly, Malley’s remarks hinted that amidst the US’ support for protests in Iran, it still remains open to doing business with Tehran if the latter rolls back its deepening strategic partnership with Moscow and refrains from any involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.
In a similar vein, curiously, Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has also chipped in with a remark earlier this month that the UN watchdog has no evidence whatsoever that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon programme, implying that the door remains open to resume the negotiations in Vienna.
The bottom line is that the ongoing protests in Iran do not pose an imminent threat to the government, less so the state. Tehran knows it. Nonetheless, it is likely that the government may tweak the hijab policy to pacify the protestors.
Reports show that as the protests continue, many women are walking on the streets of cities across Iran, especially in Tehran, without head coverings. There have also been indications that the “morality police” have been suspended until further notice.
Equally, Tehran’s cooperation with Moscow on foreign and security policy policies are of critical importance to its strategic calculus, which the Iranian leadership show no sign of upending anytime soon.
On 3 December, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines held out a veiled threat that while the Iranian government may not see the protests as a threat now, it could face more unrest because of high inflation and economic uncertainty.
“We see some kind of controversies even within them about exactly how to respond within the government” to the unrest, she said.
Iran chooses independence and security
Significantly, Iranian media has reported separately that the country’s nuclear negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani visited Moscow last weekend.
Bagheri Kani met his Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov to “discuss the prospects of full-scale implementation” of the JCPOA “in order to strengthen the approach of multilateralism and confront unilateralism and adhere to the principles contained in the United Nations Charter” – as well as the two countries’ “efforts to prevent instrumental political abuse and selective treatment of human rights issues by Western powers.”
Iranian official news agency IRNA later reported from Tehran, quoting Bagheri Kani, that the two sides “reviewed bilateral relations over the past months and created frameworks and mechanisms in agreement with each other for developing relations.” Among the issues discussed were Syria, South Caucasus and Afghanistan as areas of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow.
Bagheri Kani’s consultations in Moscow most certainly weighed in on the large-scale US-Israeli air exercises last Tuesday simulating strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. The Israeli military said in a statement that joint flights of four Israeli F-35i Adir stealth fighter jets that accompanied four US F-15 fighter jets through Israel’s skies simulated “an operational scenario and long-distance flights.”
The statement added “These exercises are a key component of the two militaries’ increasing strategic cooperation in response to shared concerns in the Middle East, particularly those posed by Iran.”