The collapse of the JCPOA, due to US withdrawal from the agreement, and protests in Iraq and in Lebanon are depriving Iran of its influence in the region and are pushing the government towards greater confrontation.
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
The earthquake that shook northwest Iran on Friday, killing five people and injuring about 300, is not just a natural catastrophe but it’s also a symbol for the embattled times in which Iran finds itself these days. In the face of mounting unilateral U.S. sanctions, the Iranian government announced that it will gradually withdraw from its commitments in the framework of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Tensions ran high when an IAEA inspector was denied access to an enrichment facility and briefly detained last week. U.S. IAEA Envoy Jackie Wolcott condemned the incident this week.
JACKIE WOLCOTT: Last week, Iran detained an inspector in Iran on IAEA business. The inspector is now safe, but Iran’s detention of this inspector was, without question, an outrageous and unwarranted act of intimidation.
GREG WILPERT: Iran said suspicious traces of explosives were found on the inspector. Here’s Iran’s IAEA Envoy Kazem Gharib Abadi, who gave Iran’s side of the story.
KAZEM GHARIB ABADI: During the routine check-in procedure, the detector’s alarm went off and it was signaling towards a specific person. They have lived with this procedure again and again and unfortunately the results were the same all the way for only that specific inspector. While the precision for finding the reason behind the incident was going on in a smooth manner, the hasty summoning of inspector has made the investigation team to follow the issues without her presence, which is still ongoing. Additionally, despite the serious security concern about the issue, her departure was facilitated in a smooth and quick manner. She was not detained.
GREG WILPERT: Also on Wednesday, Iran confirmed that it is now starting to enrich uranium at an underground facility, at 10 times its previous rate, since it no longer considers itself bound to the JCPOA anymore. A byproduct of enriching uranium, however, is weapons-grade nuclear material. Meanwhile, protests in both Iraq and in Lebanon have taken a surprising turn, which have an impact on Iran, that is pro-Iranian and Shia groups that originally supported the protests have pivoted recently against Iran. For example, protests in the Shia majority city of Karbala in Iraq are targeting the Iranian consulate there, while Lebanese protesters are openly criticizing Hezbollah, which supports Iran. As if that’s not enough, on Thursday, a U.S.-led naval coalition sent ships to patrol the Persian Gulf.
Joining me now to discuss the increasingly complicated and difficult situation that Iran finds itself in is Ali Fathollah-Nejad. He’s an independent scholar based in Doha and in Berlin, with a focus on Iran, West Asia, and North Africa. Also, he is a visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Thanks for joining us again, Ali.
ALI FATHOLLAH-NEJAD: Thank you for having me.
GREG WILPERT: Let’s start with the Iran nuclear deal–the JCPOA. You study European foreign policy towards Iran. So far, the EU tried to keep the JCPOA intact, despite the U.S. withdrawal, and they tried to salvage what it can from the agreement. With Iran now openly enriching uranium beyond what the JCPOA allows, does the EU have a chance of salvaging the agreement? Does it even want to?
ALI FATHOLLAH-NEJAD: Well, it puts the Europeans in an increasingly difficult situation to continue the kind of political support for the JCPOA. So this latest Iranian move is perhaps–or could be–a game-changer. Although, if we look at it, the Fordow facility where this enrichment has been announced; first of all, the centrifuges are first-generation centrifuges. So these are not alarming facts. On the other hand, as President Rouhani admitted openly at the TV address when announcing this step, there was a lot of sensitivities around the Fordow nuclear facility because it used to be a secret facility and it was revealed only ten years ago. There are a lot of sensitivities around this facility because it’s built inside a mountain, it’s an underground facility, and it’s military. So the Fordow facility has a lot of sensitivities associated with it.
Yet, given the centrifuges–that centrifuges are first-generation only–this is not a huge step from Iran. But it is at least upon an ultimate step before Iran completely withdraws from the nuclear deal; that is, this complete withdrawal is planned by January next year. This move, as you indicated, was also condemned by the Europeans. They voiced a lot of concern, and what the Iranians want still is that Europe restarts importing oil from Iran. Yet I think that this is not a very realistic goal. This has been a longstanding Iranian demand over the last year. And giving the impact of U.S. sanctions also on European firms, this demand vis-a-vis Europe is quite unrealistic. We might see the beginning of a phase of quite a confrontational stance between Iran and the entire West, and also including Europe.
GREG WILPERT: Now, the Israeli government actually recently accused Iran of occupying neighboring countries–seemingly not realizing the hypocrisy of such a statement for Israel. However, you have argued that Iran does indeed exert influence in several countries in the region with what you refer to as “soft power.” Explain: What is this soft power and why are the protestors in Iraq and in Lebanon apparently challenging that power at the moment?
ALI FATHOLLAH-NEJAD: Well, let’s look back at the history. In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was during the time of President Ahmadinejad, Iran was able to increase its soft power among the so-called Arab streets by its criticism of U.S. policy, but also Israeli policy. While Arab regimes were quite silent about those two issues, Iran was able to monopolize this anti-imperialist discourse. If you look back at the surveys back then, you’ll see that Iran was very much popular throughout the region. This situation has changed dramatically with the Arab Spring, where Iran in 2011 was openly supporting the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, which then laps to a massive decline of Iranian soft power and reputation throughout the region.
Now, with the second wave–arguably the second wave of the Arab Spring–not only most recently in Iraq and in Lebanon, we see another watershed moment of the decline of Iranian soft power. In both cases–as you’ve indicated–first of all, the protests are quite revolutionary. They demand the replacement of the entire political class. In those two countries, Iran is considered to be the most potent foreign player in Lebanon, as well as part of the government and Hezbollah, a Shia group that has an armed wing. And this Shia group being fully financed and supported by Iran. In Lebanon, disproportionately, the Shia South has seen a lot of protests. The entire political class has been targeted, including Hezbollah.
In Iraq, we see since the protests that have started on October 1… You’ve heard a lot of the Iraqis in the past saying that Iran is basically running the country. Those protests are very much heavily also against Iranian interference, much more strongly than in the Lebanese case. Again, in Iraq as well, the Shia part of the country–from the capital city of Baghdad to the oil-rich South of Iraq with the major city of Basra–have seen a lot of protests, especially against Iranian interference. In the Iraqi political system, Iran has played a huge role together with the United States in the wake of the 2003 invasion, where both Washington and Tehran agreed to set up a basically sectarian political system in which the Shias have dominated. This has created a lot of frustration among other ethnicities in Iraq.
But the interesting thing about both protests are that all sects are united against their respective political leaders and against the entire political class. What we’ve seen in Iraq as opposed to Lebanon, is quite a high number of dead people, that protestors killed protesters. For that, Iran plays an important role. As we’ve seen from reports, when the protests broke out in Iraq, the halves of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of Quds Force, which is the foreign operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, flew in, General Soleimani, flew into Baghdad and where he shared a meeting of top Iraqi security officials in place of the Iraqi Prime Minister. During that meeting he said that we in Iran and know how to deal with protests.
This was probably a reference to the crackdown by the Iranian States of the 2009 Green Movement on one hand, and of the 2017-18 nationwide protests on the other. After this security meeting, the death toll exceeded 100 and there were snipers targeting protesters in the next few days. So there is heavy Iranian involvement in that, and the Iranians have been also identifying those protesters. The militias that are quite important in Iraq, the Shia militias who are supported by Iran, did those killings. This is a very challenging situation for Iran because by those killings, obviously the criticism vis-a-vis Iran is only going to increase.
GREG WILPERT: Actually, in the little time that we have left I want to get to the issue of two things: First of all, whether the whole situation with the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement has anything to do with Iran’s situation with regard to these protests that you’re talking about. Also, what does all of this mean for Iran at the moment; that is, for the government? Are the U.S. economic sanctions, the protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and the naval patrol in the Gulf, are they all pushing Iran possibly towards a compromise to seek a way out of this? Or does it strengthen the hardliners, Iran, and increase the chance that Iran might resort to military force in order to break out of this impasse?
ALI FATHOLLAH-NEJAD: Well, first of all, the decision of Iran to scale back its nuclear commitments has been a result of elite consensus by all wings, both the hardline wing of the Iranian elite and the moderate wing of the Iranian elite. The nuclear issue and Iran’s response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal is an uber-elite strategy that is aimed at increasing Iranian leverage in view of possible talks with the United States, and also to put pressure on the Europeans to provide for the economic dividends that Iran was promised by the deal.
Yet, we’ve seen also this week–which marked the anniversary of the beginning of the so-called hostage crisis in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979–that Supreme Leader Khamenei reiterated his ban for talks with the United States, although President Rouhani is more inclined to potentially enter talks with the United States. But as things stand, despite some signals from the White House that they might be willing to talk to Iran, there is still a ban from the highest authority in Iran, from Supreme Leader Khamenei for such talks. I wouldn’t necessarily connect those two issues. I would only connect that the decline of Iran in soft power might be complicating Iranian retaliatory action when it comes to a confrontation between Iran and the United States in the region. But so far, I think it’s too early to draw any concrete conclusions from that.
But be it as it may, I think the next few weeks and months will be a very tense. While the Iranians would need to negotiate sooner or later with the United States, because the U.S. is the decision-maker when it comes to sanctions, there is still the hardliners who fear that any kind of opening to the United States might undermine their monopolies inside the country. Although we cannot exclude the fact that–as in the case of the phase proceeding the official negotiations that lead to the JCPOA–there were secret talks in Oman between Iran and the United States that were green-lighted by Supreme Leader Khamenei. This time around, we could see at some point that also such secret talks might happen if the regime feels that its survival will be at stake. There are a lot of possible scenarios still around.
GREG WILPERT: Okay. We’re going to leave it there for now, but as usual we’re going to continue to follow this. I was speaking to Ali Fathollah-Nejad, independent scholar based in Doha and in Berlin. Thanks again, Ali, for having joined us today.
ALI FATHOLLAH-NEJAD: Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News.