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Quick Thoughts: Ali Vaez on The Iranian Nuclear Agreement
Quick Thoughts: Ali Vaez on The Iranian Nuclear Agreement
The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing
The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing

Quick Thoughts: Ali Vaez on The Iranian Nuclear Agreement

Originally published in Jadaliyya

This interview with Crisis Group's Senior Iran Analyst Ali Vaez first appeared in Jadaliyya.

On 14 July 2015 in the Austrian capital Vienna, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif jointly announced the conclusion of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States), Germany and the European Union (EU). Later that same day the presidents of Iran and the US, Hassan Rouhani and Barrack Obama, gave televised addresses hailing the agreement that crowned almost two years of intensive negotiations, primarily in Austria, Oman and Switzerland. As part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East analysts, Jadaliyya asked Ali Vaez, Crisis Group Senior Analyst for Iran, to interpret the substance and context of what is commonly known as the Iranian nuclear agreement.

Jadaliyya: Why did the negotiations fail to meet the initial, self-imposed 30 June deadline, what were the main remaining obstacles, and how were these resolved?

Ali Vaez: In negotiations, as in life, deadlines can concentrate the mind but are often missed because they are both arbitrary and ambitious. In twenty two months of arduous negotiations between Iran, the permanent UN Security Council members and Germany (known as the P5+1 or E3+3), six deadlines lapsed until a deal was finally reached on 14 July. So the 30 June deadline was not particularly exceptional. The reason these negotiations went into a marathon eighteen-day final round of extra time was three-fold:

First, there were a few last minute snags. This was caused by parties walking back on some of the commitments they had made under the April 2015 Lausanne Framework due to domestic political constraints, or because each side was hoping to use the pressure of time to extract additional concessions from the other. Additionally, neither side wanted to be seen by its critics back home as having rushed into a deal out of fear of either missing the deadline or seeing the congressional review period for the agreement being extended from thirty to sixty days after the 10 July deadline.

Second, there was significant discord within the P5+1. For example, on the question of lifting the embargo on conventional weapons imposed by UN Security Council resolutions 1737 and 1929, Russia and China sided with Iran and demanded the immediate repeal of these restrictions. The US and its European allies were by contrast seeking to keep this embargo in place for a much longer period of time if not indefinitely. Finding a compromise on this matter, which was extraneous to the core issue of preventing the proliferation of unconventional weapons, proved more difficult than expected.

Finally, the sheer complexity of the highly technical and detailed 109-page text required a monumental amount of work. Any alteration in one area could affect other, related elements and required painful adjustments. Review of the text by lawyers, and its translation into Persian, were both laborious and time-consuming.

Do you consider the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action a viable agreement, and what do you see as the main achievements for the parties involved?

This achievement is a triumph of multilateral diplomacy and a testament to the seriousness of purpose, patience and persistence of the negotiators involved in this process. Negotiations by nature produce imperfect outcomes. In this case the agreement permits Iran a higher enrichment capacity than the US and its allies would have preferred, while sanctions relief will be slower and more circumscribed than Iran desired. But ultimately both sides realized their interests and can therefore rightfully claim victory.

If fully implemented, this nuclear accord could put an end to a prolonged and multidimensional standoff; effectively block overt and clandestine pathways to nuclear militarization; set a positive precedent for non-proliferation regimes; provide the Iranian people with economic relief; offer a path for normalizing Iran’s relationship with the international community; and thus open the door to the possibility of constructive engagement on critical issues of peace and security in the Middle East.

The accord is historic because of three unique characteristics: it establishes the most rigorous verification and inspection mechanism ever negotiated, turning Iran’s nuclear industry into the most monitored program in the world; it rolls back one of the most extensive sanctions regimes ever imposed on any country according to a balanced formula and reciprocal schedule; and it represents the first instance in which a case considered by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was resolved without resort to war or regime change.

What are the key dates and actions relevant to the actual implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?  

There are several key dates. 14 July, the day the agreement was reached, is dubbed “Finalization Day”. The deal will now have to be endorsed by the UN Security Council, which is likely to issue a new resolution before the end of July. In the meantime, the accord has to be reviewed by the US Congress and the Iranian Majlis (parliament). While there is no fixed timeline for the Majlis, Congress has 60 days to review and approve or reject the deal. If it is rejected, President Obama will have 12 days to veto that decision. Congress will then have an additional 10 days to override a presidential veto. If the deal is submitted to Congress this week, I believe this process will take us to the second half of September.

The next key date is “Adoption Day”, which arrives ninety days after the adoption of a new UN Security Council resolution. On that day, Iran will start implementing its key nuclear commitments by uninstalling two-thirds of its centrifuges, reducing the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium, destroying the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor, and providing more access and information to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This process is expected to take four to six months.

On Adoption Day, the US and EU will issue the waivers and regulations necessary for the lifting of economic and financial sanctions, but whose implementation will be contingent upon IAEA verification that Iran has successfully met its commitments. The day that report is issued by the IAEA is called “Implementation Day”. Upon its publication, sanctions relief will occur automatically. Eight years later, on “Transition Day”, the IAEA will be asked to provide Iran’s nuclear program with a clean bill of health, triggering the lifting of all UN nuclear-related sanctions. In parallel, the Iranian parliament will ratify the Additional Protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the US Congress will terminate all nuclear-related sanctions. Finally, ten years from now the UN will remove the Iranian nuclear dossier from its agenda, and the EU will formally repeal all remaining sanctions including those that were previously suspended rather than terminated.

There are suggestions opponents of the agreement, particularly Israel and the Republican faction of the US Congress, will seek to either prevent the ratification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or obstruct its implementation. What are your views on this?

The agreement has serious critics in Iran, the US and the region. The most important wild cards are members of the US Congress who maintain that the deal does not sufficiently restrain Tehran’s nuclear activities. Passing new legislation to thwart the agreement – even though President Obama has committed to use his veto powers to prevent this – will torpedo the deal and harm the US’s global standing.

The struggle between Congress and the White House is likely to be tough, but President Obama appears to be in a strong position. In fact he needs only slightly more than one-third of the members of either chamber of Congress to prevent any resolution of disapproval and sustain a presidential veto. His opponents need two-thirds of both chambers. Given that 151 Democratic members of the House of Representatives have already supported the president’s diplomatic venture, the odds of the deal surviving are high. It is also difficult to imagine that Senate Democrats will turn their back on their own president and destroy his key foreign policy achievement in the midst of the US electoral season. Having said this, it would be mistaken to underestimate the extent to which the Republicans and even some Democrats are willing to go to torpedo this deal.

What, if any, impact do you think this agreement will have on the broader political dynamics of the Middle East?

The regional consequences of the agreement are unclear. At least in the short term, it is likely to reinforce the sense in regional capitals that Iran’s star is ascendant, which could exacerbate clashes along existing fault-lines. More broadly, both Iran and the West might be tempted to take provocative measures to demonstrate to their respective domestic hardliners and regional partners that their fundamental policies and interests have not changed. To diminish possible negative repercussions, the same countries that championed the nuclear accord should - in cooperation with other regional actors - engage Iran on issues of common concern, such as stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen. For its part, Tehran should take concrete steps to convince its neighbors that, even as it rehabilitates politically and economically, it does not seek to dominate the region.

The Middle-Class Women of Iran Are Disappearing

Originally published in The New York Times

A few weeks after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “brutal men of the regime” in Tehran for oppressing Iranian women who were demanding their rights.

“As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess,” Mr. Pompeo said.

But the Trump administration then dealt a tremendous blow to Iranian women by reimposing sanctions on Iran, restricting oil sales and access to the global banking system, and pushing the economy into a deep recession.

Since the spring of 2018, the Iranian rial has lost 68 percent of its value. In March 2020, inflation hit around 41 percent; today it hovers around 30 percent. In the same period, the gross domestic product shrank by 6.5 percent, and unemployment stood at 10.8 percent. The sanctions scuppered one of the nuclear deal’s key dividends: the foreign investment and job creation that was set to accompany the opening of Iran’s markets to the world.

The decimation of Iran’s economy is unfolding in the lives of the very constituency that has been working for reform and liberalization, and in whose name Mr. Pompeo and other leading American officials speak: middle-class Iranian women. The slump is tearing away at their fragile gains in employment, upper management positions and leadership roles in the arts and higher education, while reducing their capacity to seek legal reforms and protections.

When the sanctions hit, Mahsa Mohammadi, a 45-year-old editor and language teacher in Tehran, was saving to pay for a graduate degree in education at a university in Istanbul. Her rent in Tehran doubled because of inflation, and she was forced to move with her young son to a small city with no cultural life.

Inflation continued rising; the rents doubled again. Ms. Mohammadi lost most of her income from English tutoring. No one could afford language classes anymore. She could then no longer afford even the small city. She moved to a cheaper, conservative hamlet near the Caspian Sea where people look down on divorced mothers. Studying abroad is now an increasingly elusive dream.

“All our demands and hopes have whittled away,” she said. “The pressure is unbearable.”

As the Biden administration explores re-engaging with Iran, some of those who oppose an American return to the nuclear deal, even as a basis for negotiating an expanded agreement, are also vocal in their support of Iranian women’s rights. In Congress, the argument that women’s rights should inform U.S. policy has particular traction. Yet members of Congress have on occasion spoken at events organized by the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a controversial Iranian opposition group that has hardly been a champion for women’s rights, even those of its own female members.

For many women in Iran, hard-line American arguments for regime change and perpetual pressure fail to capture the complexities they have to grapple with. Cries to support human rights from champions of sanctions sound hollow when those sanctions dismantle a country’s economy and the livelihood of its people.

The Biden administration should acknowledge this reality as it battles domestic and congressional ambivalence toward renewed diplomacy with Iran.

Iranian women have been agitating for more rights and democracy for decades, and their triumphs against the establishment’s most doctrinaire restrictions have been led by middle-class activists. Often viewed as the primary engine of social change, middle-class women have seen their lives and hopes crushed by the Trump administration’s sanctions, and it is hard to see what the United States gains by this devastation.

Today, the “middle-class woman” in Iran is a disappearing category. Although women outnumber men in university enrollment, they often graduate to find that employers prefer to hire men.

Women’s employment rates had increased in recent years, despite these barriers, but the layered shock to the Iranian economy from sanctions and Covid-19 has made them lose ground disproportionately.

From March to September 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, men lost 637,000 jobs while women, whose work force participation is a mere 17.5 percent, lost 717,000. As Iranians resumed work in the fall, the job losses by men were reversed, while women’s employment rates continued to decline.

While lost aspiration is hard to measure with data points, women’s lagging production and representation in a number of sectors, including a cultural sphere dominated by men, has worsened since Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

A case in point is a publisher in Tehran who specializes in historical nonfiction. One of her more successful releases recently was a book titled “The Etiquette of Disciplining Men,” originally written in the late 19th century by an unknown woman. (This book was a rejoinder to an anonymously written patriarchal treatise called “Disciplining Women.”) In the past two years, the publisher’s list has shrunk every season, and she has halved every book’s first print run.

The cost of paper has always bedeviled Iranian publishers, but sanctions-fueled inflation has pushed prices up and limited stock. The publisher has stopped using sparkly paper for the covers to control prices, but still fewer people are buying books. “People are moving closer to the poverty line, they’re spending on meat and diapers,” said the publisher, who asked not to be identified. “We’re trying to lower prices, but we also can’t give books out for free.”

During President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure, the state censors had been granting publishing permits more liberally. Many of these books were translated by female translators working from home. Some translators, who could once earn $700 to $3,000 per book and produced two books a year, now have no orders at all.

Even in movies, the one industry that has flourished in Iran whatever the national currents, women are now faring poorly. Independent female filmmakers have long struggled to cobble together financing and to get approval from state censors for their work, especially when it deals with social taboos and legal injustices. Many of them relied on European cultural institutions for financing.

“These days, even if they manage to get official permission, sanctions block the transfer of funds from abroad,” explained Fery Malek-Madani, a curator and filmmaker whose 2018 film, “The Girls,” is a journey through girls’ primary-school classrooms across Iran.

The isolation of Iran’s movie industry has forced filmmakers to reorient themselves around national television broadcasters. These networks churn out ideological products in line with the state’s unenlightened gender norms, with women cast in subservient roles and deferential to men, their guardians and protectors. Some even promote child marriage and polygamy, practices that are rejected by the majority of Iranians.

Amid the intensified conflict with the United States, Iran’s security establishment has emerged as a major producer of blockbuster television and film centering on the prowess of the Revolutionary Guards and its intelligence services. Iran is awash in sophisticated domestic versions of “Homeland,” and deprived of the self-interrogating, subversive cinema that once allowed society to have a public conversation with itself about gender, culture, marriage and power.

The economic downturn has caused a generational shock to women’s lives and political prospects. Fatemeh, who works with survivors of domestic violence, explained that disappearing incomes and rising expenditures have pushed women back into abusive living conditions. Fatemeh, who asked to identified by her given name, also said that many of her young and single colleagues who had persuaded their families to let them live independently, have been forced to move back home by shrinking, unstable incomes and soaring rents.

Trying to stem their slide into poverty, Iranian women can’t pay the same attention to advancing legal rights and deeper political change. “Activists are struggling to survive,” explained Shiva Nazarahari, a prominent activist, who left Iran two years ago. “If they do end up with a bit of time at the end of the day for their activism, they are often too exhausted and preoccupied with economic survival to be effective.”

In recent years, authoritarian forces in Iran that are keen to suppress civil society through arrests and intimidation have become stronger. And the Trump administration’s tainting embrace of Iranian women’s rights has also cast greater suspicion on women’s activism. Hoda Amid, a lawyer, was sentenced to eight years in prison for conducting a workshop on the rights of women in marriage. Ms. Nazarahari notes such sentences have become far worse than they tended to be in the past.

With Washington and Tehran caught in a diplomatic standoff, the Iranian people await relief. A sequestered and choked off Iran is functioning effectively as a state at war, dimming the prospects for its women.

“The pressure on women, on the middle class, is utterly oppressive. I just don’t find the justifications for sanctions at all persuasive, certainly not from a feminist perspective,” said Faezeh Tavakoli, a historian with the Institute of Humanities and Cultural Studies in Tehran. “You can’t tell people, ‘Starve and then seek freedom.’”


Project Director, Gender
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Sussan Tahmasebi
Founder of FEMENA and Iranian women’s rights activist.