As nuclear talks resume, Iran is rattled by protests over water

The unrest is a reminder of what the country could gain from a deal

12/3/2021 10:22:00 AM

Iran's hardliners would rather shun the West, pursue trade with China and build a so-called “resistance economy”. But unrest at home exposes the futility of this approach

The unrest is a reminder of what the country could gain from a deal

JCPOAset limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of many international economic sanctions. Donald Trump pulled America out of the deal in 2018. Joe Biden was elected on a promise to revive it. This is the seventh round of talks since he took office in January. But it is the first since his new Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, was installed in August after a farcical election that saw most would-be challengers disqualified.

If America is to blame for causing the crisis, Iran is largely at fault for prolonging it. TheJCPOAallows Iran to enrich uranium to 3.67% purity. It breached that limit in 2019 and is exceeding it to an ever greater degree. Earlier this year it enriched uranium up to 60%, a level that has no civilian use and is a whisker from weapons-grade.

TheUN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported in November that Iran had stockpiled more than 2,300kg of enriched uranium, 11 times the level permitted in the deal. That includes 17.7kg at 60% purity (a bomb requires about 25kg of weapons-grade uranium). It has also started turning gaseous uranium into solid metal, a key step in bomb-making. On December 1st the agency reported that Iran had begun installing advanced centrifuges and spinning uranium up to 20% at Fordow, a fortified site dug into a mountain where the headtopics.com

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JCPOAforbids any enrichment.Before this round of talks, Iran indicated it would not discuss its own violations, only America’s. It wants an apology for Mr Trump’s withdrawal, along with compensation and a promise that it will not happen again. Reasonable as it may seem, some of this is impossible. America cannot provide such a guarantee—nor, for that matter, can the deal’s other signatories, including Iran itself.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear activity may soon render theJCPOAirrelevant. Even if forbidden work is halted, Iran has gained valuable know-how that cannot be forgotten. American officials say time is short to restore the deal, but refuse to say what would constitute an irreparable step on Iran’s part. “We’ll know it when we see it,” says Rob Malley, America’s lead negotiator.

Enrique Mora, theEU’s top diplomat, said on November 29th that Iran had at last agreed to discuss not only sanctions but also its own activities. Such is the dire state of the deal that this qualifies as progress.Hardliners in Tehran believe theJCPOAis not worth the effort. America, they argue, will preserve non-nuclear sanctions that hobble Iran’s economy. They would rather shun the West, pursue trade with China and focus on building a so-called “resistance economy” at home.

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Yet recent events back home expose the futility of this approach. Residents of Isfahan, in central Iran, have held weeks of protests in the Zayandeh Roud (pictured), a dried-up riverbed that snakes through the city. Farmers started the demonstration, angry about a long drought that has ruined their livelihoods. The government, they said, has done little to help. headtopics.com

Water shortages are common in Iran. TheUNsays that available water per person has dropped by 28% over the past three decades, to 1,675 cubic metres a year, a level it defines as “water stress”. In July there were protests in Khuzestan, a south-western province, after residents went for days without running water in scorching heat.

The drought is not directly linked to sanctions: it stems from decades of mismanagement, water-intensive farming and climate change. Yet even a more attentive government would find it hard to fix such problems while under sanctions that limit access to both foreign technology and hard currency.

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That will be a problem for Mr Raisi, who campaigned on a pledge to tackle Iran’s myriad socioeconomic woes. He scored an early win on the pandemic: 54% of Iranians are now fully vaccinated, up from 3% when he took office. It helped that Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, dropped his objections to Western vaccines just around the time when Mr Raisi was inaugurated.

The new president has made a point of embarking on weekly listening tours to outlying provinces. What he has heard is frustration. The rial has lost 86% of its value in the past five years. Though inflation eased last month, it is still running at 44% a year. Prices for staple foods like milk, bread and eggs are rising even faster. In recent years there have been frequent protests over living conditions, despite a sometimes brutal crackdown by the authorities. headtopics.com

Some interlocutors have sought to appeal to Iran’s self-interest. Even if Mr Trump (or someone like him) returned to power in 2025, reviving theJCPOAnow would give Iran three years of reduced sanctions and opportunities for foreign investment: better, surely, to face the next round of “maximum pressure” from a stronger position. Mr Raisi and his boss, Mr Khamenei, will have to decide whether such pragmatism trumps ideology.

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