As the Iranian authorities struggle to suppress the widespread demonstrations in the country nearly two months after the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman who was arrested in Tehran for allegedly breaching strict dress rules for women and later died in police custody, they have been counting their losses.
These have taken the shape of a worsening relationship with Washington, deteriorating relations with Europe, and the reduced likelihood of a new nuclear deal with the West.
Domestically, Iran is also entering a difficult period. There is sharp political polarisation between conservatives and reformists and deep societal divisions, some of which are historical and some of which have been inflamed by the current demonstrations.
There is a deteriorating economic situation, with the crisis dragging Iran’s currency to new lows. The US dollar was selling for 362,100 riyals on the unofficial market this week, after it lost nearly 12 per cent of its value since the protests started, according to foreign-exchange website Bonbast.com.
There is also a ruling elite that feels isolated internally and internationally.
From previous experience, the more isolated the Iranian regime feels, the more it tends to use violence, silence dissenting voices, and close paths towards political reform and address the causes that have led to the unprecedented demonstrations.
The exchange of accusations this week between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and US President Joe Biden was an indication that the demonstrations and the repression they have met with are reshaping strategic priorities in Washington and Tehran.
During an electoral rally in preparation for the US midterm elections, Biden backed the protesters in Iran by saying that “we’re gonna free Iran. They’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.”
He did not specify what he meant, but conservatives and hardliners in Iran used Biden’s statement to argue that the demonstrations, the largest in Iran since 1979, are not spontaneous and are motivated by an external agenda. Those involved in them are agents of anti-Iranian forces, they said.
“The Americans and other enemies have sought to destabilise Iran by implementing the same plans as in Libya and Syria, but they have failed,” Raisi was quoted by Iranian news agencies as telling a group of students, accusing the US of trying to repeat the 2011 Arab uprisings in the Islamic Republic.
By contrast, Iranian cities were “safe and sound,” Raisi said, promising retribution for the unrest the country has seen.
Biden’s intervention was not appreciated by many Iranians, with many reformist voices inside Iran warning against issuing statements of support that are not backed by practical policies on the ground to push for the regime to change its ways.
“There are opposition voices abroad asking America to intervene. We, the protesters at home, do not need America’s intervention or support. Biden’s statements do more harm than good. America does not care about democracy, and its calculations are always to serve its own interests,” a young Iranian woman who participated in the demonstrations in Tehran told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Protesters in Iran have repeatedly told the West, in the demonstrations of 2005, 2009, and 2017, that the best thing to do is keep silent. US or European support leads to a campaign of violent repression and quells the demonstrations before any reform demands are met,” she added.
After the Iranian Revolutionary Guards distanced themselves from interfering in the early days of the demonstrations, now the Guards, the most powerful military organisation in Iran, are involved in suppressing the demonstrators.
Over the past few weeks, the Guards have deployed forces in the streets and issued strongly worded statements threatening the demonstrators.
The tensions between Tehran and Washington over the demonstrations are not the only reason for pessimism about prospects for the success of the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. Other regional and international variables will make reaching a nuclear agreement and lifting the sanctions on Iran in the coming months unlikely.
Regionally, there is a new government forming in Israel headed by Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently consulting with extreme right-wing parties to form a coalition government. Netanyahu’s hostility to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers is well-known.
During the election campaign in Israel, he stressed that he would work to convince the US administration that Tehran does not deserve a nuclear agreement that would give it billions of dollars after the lifting of sanctions “to use them to destabilise the region”.
Regional allies of Israel in the Middle East have echoed this argument, and Netanyahu will likely press for an end to the negotiations.
Internationally, a new political reality is taking shape in the US itself. The Republican Party is on its way to achieving a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives if the opinion polls for the midterm elections are correct.
If the Republicans regain control of Congress, it will be difficult to pass the nuclear agreement, if it is reached, because the Republicans are sceptical about the feasibility of the agreement with Iran.
Many of them support the approach of former US president Donald Trump, who exited the US from the 2018 nuclear agreement.
In this case, the Biden administration would have one further option, which would be to ratify the nuclear agreement by executive order, similar to what former president Barack Obama did when he encountered opposition in Congress against the agreement in 2015.
But Biden will not be enthusiastic to do this after the crackdown on dissenting voices in Iran.
There is also controversy over Iran’s role in giving Russia drones to use in the Russian-Ukrainian war to strike military and civilian targets. Tehran’s military support for Moscow will make it difficult for the Biden administration to pass the nuclear agreement if it is reached.
Iran also does not seem to be eager to reach an agreement, and some European diplomats have blamed Tehran for stalling due to the additional conditions that it has put on the negotiating table, including removing the Revolutionary Guards from US sanctions lists and ensuring that Washington does not withdraw from the nuclear agreement again, regardless of who is in power.
This is a condition that the Biden administration could not abide by because of the impossibility of obligating future administrations.
Taking such factors into consideration, US-Iranian relations are back to square one, which is bad news for the Iranians, economically and politically, because it means more economic suffering as the prospects of lifting the sanctions decline.
It also means strengthening the grip of the regime. With the Biden administration imposing two rounds of sanctions on Iran in September and October over the nuclear programme and the suppression of the demonstrators, Tehran and Washington can be expected to enter a new cycle of hostility.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.