Why Iran's Domestic Woes Won't Soften Its Approach in Vienna

Water shortages rather than heavy water may be a key concern of Iranians right now, but that doesn’t mean Tehran will be looking for a deal with the world powers in the ongoing nuclear talks

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi talking with patients and their families who have been demonstrating outside the parliament demanding help with treatment for spinal muscular atrophy patients, in Tehran on Wednesday.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi talking with patients and their families who have been demonstrating outside the parliament demanding help with treatment for spinal muscular atrophy patients, in TehraCredit: Vahid Salemi/AP
Jonathan Harounoff
Jonathan Harounoff

As the seventh round of nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers began in Vienna this week, seasoned Iran watchers cautioned that no breakthrough should be expected this time – even though the situation has become complicated for Tehran following recent signs of domestic unrest in the Islamic Republic.

The concurrent nuclear talks and protests in the central city of Isfahan represent probably the most important test so far for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is widely considered to favor a more hard-line approach than his predecessor, Hassan Rohani.

Mass protests in Isfahan due to water shortages drew global attention last week and marked the latest setback for a regime already hit by U.S.-imposed sanctions and, still, international pariah status. As Iran sits down with the U.S., China, Russian and European powers, Israel is watching on from the sidelines and warning the Americans not to submit to “nuclear blackmail” from Tehran.

Two geopolitical paths

Last week, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley warned that time was of the essence for Iran to choose one of two geopolitical paths: “Continued nuclear escalation & crisis, or mutual return to the JCPOA, creating opportunities for regional economic & diplomatic ties. Time to choose is short,” he tweeted.

Despite that ultimatum, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, predicts there will be “no agreement” at this stage. “The Iranian delegation is in Vienna to voice its demands and measure up the other side. Plus, Raisi has not prepared the Iranian public for any retreat,” he says. 

Unlike the Rohani regime, Raisi’s government has the added pressure of living up to its hard-line stance at the bargaining table while keeping compromises to a minimum.

“Expectations for what can be achieved in this round of talks is extremely low,” says Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and founder of the National Iranian American Council.

“Expect a lot of public posturing by the Raisi government to signal to its home audience that it is negotiating hard and will not cave in,” Parsi says. “Any real progress will likely come in the next round or, in the best-case scenario, toward the end of this round of talks.” 

Farmers attending a protest last month demanding authorities open a dam to relieve drought-stricken areas of central province of Isfahan, central Israel.Credit: Hamidreza Nikoomaram/AP

In many ways, Iran’s domestic prospects – including efforts to address the water crisis – are tied to its diplomatic triumphs abroad and ability to get sanctions lifted. 

“Addressing Iran’s environmental issues would require a broad overhaul of its economic, agricultural and environmental policies,” notes Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, London. “But that would be impossible to foresee while Iran is bound by sanctions and committed to the resistance economic model.” 

Domestic troubles

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran over 40 years ago, and experts say Raisi is unlikely to change the status quo.

Raisi, who most recently headed Iran’s judiciary after spending over four decades in clerical roles for the regime, was handpicked by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to run virtually uncontested in June’s presidential race, as part of the 82-year-old supreme leader’s plans to cement his legacy.

Raisi secured 62 percent of the vote in the June vote, although turnout levels were at their lowest level since 1979.

According to Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Raisi won the presidency because he’s a loyal footsoldier to the ayatollahs and will never challenge Khamenei.

“Raisi could potentially be in the running to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader – not because he has charisma or the religious qualifications, but because the Islamic Republic will see in him someone who can preserve continuity as a benign captain of the regime,” Vatanka says. 

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaving after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Vienna on Tuesday.Credit: LISI NIESNER/REUTERS

Nuclear negotiations aside, Raisi’s domestic troubles show no signs of abating.

This is in large part due to the country’s spiraling inflation – 39.2 percent in October, which was actually down from the previous month – mass unemployment and economic struggles. When Raisi’s new administration assumed control in August, it inherited huge debts and a budget deficit of approximately $14 billion, according to Iran’s vice president for economic affairs, Mohsen Rezaee. 

“Raisi has very little money to do what a populist politician would seek to do,” Vatanka says. “Unlike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had been presiding over an oil-rich Iran from 2005 to 2013, Raisi can’t endear himself to the public by promising oil money at kitchen tables. He can’t promise cash subsidies and he can’t provide subsidized housing. All he can do is [perform] damage control and make promises about things eventually getting better.” 

Iran has seen countless sporadic protests break out nationwide in recent years, though they either fizzled out or were quelled by government forces. Nearly 70 people were arrested in Isfahan last weekend during the protest over the government’s water management policies, Iranian state media reported.

In response, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said he was “deeply concerned about the violent crackdown” against the protesters. “The people of Iran have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable,” he wrote.

Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, sees the latest protests as arguably the most significant domestic challenge to Raisi’s rule. “The latest protests in Iran are tremendously important because they revolve around an issue – water scarcity – that has become a common rallying point for all Iranians, irrespective of socioeconomic status,” he says. 

“The issue affects every strata of Iranian society – even those that sat out previous rounds of anti-regime activism such as the 2009 Green Movement. That’s why the mismanagement of the environment is a potential Achilles’ heel for the regime.”

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