SIX MONTHS AGO, a distant observer of the political struggles of the Iranian people could easily be forgiven for thinking that their prospects were brighter than they had been for a long time. The forces that restrained them - international isolation, the intolerance of their theocratic government, and economic marginality - were all looking on the brink of being addressed.
The re-election as President of Hassan Rouhani, now self-styled as a moderate, even as a liberal, last May was convincing, winning a majority of votes in the first round. The turnout of voters was at its highest for 20 years - not to mention higher than that in any US presidential election since the nineteenth century - and that indicated to many that the complex Iranian political balancing act between clerical and democratic leadership was once again intact. The 2015 nuclear deal was also holding up, with the International Atomic Energy Agency affirming full Iranian compliance. In that context, there was strong support from European states for rebuilding economic links with Iran, despite the Trump administration heaping its hostility on to the deal.
Behind the charade of confidence, though, there was a lurking sourness. The Iranian government has blamed international sanctions against the country for its economic ills for the past decade. It functioned as a useful, and not entirely implausible, excuse. The partial and staged removal of those sanctions may have started to enrich Iran’s tiny business class, but they did nothing for the vast majority of the people.
The widespread protests that developed from 28th December were triggered by the budget earlier that month which, in the name of economic liberalisation, cut back subsidies, which are most relevant for the poor. Perhaps even more important was the attempt to rein in unofficial savings institutions, in which around a quarter of Iranians put their limited resources. A number of major such institutions have collapsed, and the attempts to curtail them would have led to the collapse of more. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of poor Iranians who do not have access to the formal banking system have lost their meagre savings. The most common explanation given by Iranians for this is simple: corruption.
In Iran, though, economic problems rapidly become political problems: a system which in the name of religion and national pride promises so much cannot cope with the expectations it creates. By December, the disjuncture between the official voice of how Iran had emerged victorious from attempts to destroy it and the reality of people’s lived experience of poverty had become unbridgeable.
The protests abated after ten days, but they have left two major legacies. Within Iran, the spirit of optimism that began with the nuclear deal is unmistakeably over.
Perhaps just as important is the effect outside Iran, where the reports of protests were converted too readily into claims about an existential crisis of the Islamic government. It led to renewed calls in Europe and the US for rowing back on the nuclear deal, resurrecting the same sense of righteous hostility that led to the decade long stalemate of which the ultimate losers were the Iranian people themselves.
The cheerleader for that was of course the Trump administration, which used the protests as a cover for insisting that new conditions must be written into the nuclear deal. The negotiations took over two years of intense work before an agreement could be worked out, but now the US government is demanding that a whole new set of conditions must be agreed - in effect a wholly new deal made - within 120 days or it will terminate its involvement.
This is a demand that US officials must know cannot be fulfilled. The deal though is not just between the US and Iran. The European countries which are parties to the deal will in May be faced with the choice of staying with an arrangement that has served its purpose - of giving a fully verified assurance that Iran has no programme to develop nuclear weapons - or giving in to Trump’s revanchism. The US will no doubt seek to blame the Iranians for their alleged intransigence. There is also furious lobbying from Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its regional rival, to go back to a policy of isolating Iran.
If the European countries give way, the result will take us back to another bitter standoff, with mutual blame and violence likely persisting for another generation.
And that must not be blamed, by either the theocratic government in Iran or by skittish European governments, on the protestors against poverty on the streets of Iran.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.