Nerves on edge

Analysis

The conflict between the US and Iran over the nuclear programme of the latter is coming to a head. Increasingly punitive sanctions are affecting the population more and more. Green politician Omid Nouripour, himself born in Teheran and currently the foreign policy spokesman of the German Green Party in the Bundestag, recently visited the Iranian capital. He says that there is still time for Europe to avert disaster.

Iranian Youngsters gathering under Si o Seh Pol Bridge
Teaser Image Caption
Iranische Jugendliche unter der 33-Bogen-Brücke in Isfahan, Iran

With the increasing escalation of the conflict with the United States, the daily lives of Iranian people are becoming more difficult. It is not just attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman or the devastated economy that are making life harder for them – so too is the balance of power that has shifted within Iran as a result of conflict with the US.

During my trip to the capital, I have been able to take a look behind the scenes over the last few weeks. Downtown Teheran still has many European-style cafés bearing witness to the rise of the middle classes. Many Iranians are rebelling against the rigid rules of the Islamic Republic. A colourful poster, entitled The Fight for Women’s Bodies, advertises a controversial exhibition. In the shopping malls too, I saw self-confident women spurning headscarves. The cafés and shopping centres are still havens for the cosmopolitan middle classes. But that could change.

I was told of the increasing number of checks and arrests on the grounds of immodest clothing. Even private institutions have reportedly come in for increased scrutiny from the guardians of public morals, mostly over infringements of the strict alcohol laws. Arrests are a daily occurrence.

All of this may sound rather banal on the scale of potential war. But it also shows that the balances within the apparatus of power have shifted. The Islamic Republic was never a homogenous bloc – that would cover foreign policy in the same way as it does concepts of (limited) civil freedoms, such as clothing regulations. 

Whilst the inner circles of current President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif militated for diplomacy and the nuclear deal with the United States, the hardliners have always been sceptical about the plan. Again and again whilst I was in Teheran, I heard this argument: the hardliners have been evidentially proven right with their warnings – you can’t trust the USA, as they stepped away from the nuclear treaty, even though the country continued to honour its obligations under the deal. 

This has taken the wind out of the sails of the more moderate factions of the system. The opposition’s power has dwindled away too. There has been scarcely any sign of the widespread demonstrations of just last year. People have other things to worry about.

Hope rests on European shoulders

In particular, they had hoped for more from the Europeans. To begin with, the EU stated loud and clear that it wanted to rescue the agreement. Its chances of doing so were always slim, as European businesses and, in particular, banks have been hit by the US sanctions; but to this day, even the few options they have remain almost entirely unused. The word in Teheran is that apart from statements, the EU has achieved almost nothing in the past year.  

The textbook example of this is the trading platform Instex. As Iran has been cut off from the global transaction system Swift, due to pressure from the United States, it is almost impossible to do business with the country and hence transfer money. Instex, a kind of clearing mechanism involving no money transfer through banks, with supposed to help. But the mechanism is still not up and running. For this reason, even the most elementary humanitarian transactions are next to impossible. I heard about a German pharmaceutical company that was prepared to supply goods that were urgently needed in Iran and for which there were the means to pay. However, the transaction cannot take place.

Even though there are fewer discordant voices within the Iranian leadership, there is still not anything that could be described as a clear strategy. Instead, there is mutual mistrust and no power to act decisively. Accordingly, the Iranians are currently unable to enter into direct discussions on Trump’s offer in a sovereign manner. It would be useful, from Teheran’s point of view, to take a look at North Korea, humiliation by the Americans put aside. Kim Jong-Un has so far managed to use his political bromance with Trump to avert the worst of the tension with the United States.

Iran, on the other hand, has acted provocatively, announcing its intention of breaking the rules of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But that’s all talk. According to the protocol to the nuclear treaty, the first step would be for the International Atomic Energy Agency to take note of the breach in its quarterly report; that would be in late August. Then, the matter would be referred to a Committee of the United Nations. This means that it could be a few more months until the full raft of sanctions were back in place.

If, however, Iran were to give the impression that it wanted bombs, Saudi Arabia, emboldened by Trump’s solidarity, could get the idea of acquiring nuclear weaponry itself – the Saudis would not struggle to do this, as they could buy nuclear weapons from their close partner, Pakistan, for instance. And that in turn would be a considerable security risk for Iran as well.

My time in Teheran was therefore by no means reassuring. Nerves are on edge and, just as is the case in Washington, there is no clear strategy as to what they wish to achieve and how. That is where the Europeans come in. 

Europe must calm the diplomatic crisis

However, the only high-ranking visitor from the EU in recent weeks has been the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas. It was a good gesture, but ultimately an ineffectual one. Apart from some kind words and a couple of photo opportunities, Maas brought little with him. 

Even so, Europe now has the means to calm a major diplomatic crisis. But time is of the essence.

The losers would not just be the emerging middle classes. If people’s greatest concern is where their next meal is coming from, there is not much energy left over for the urgent and necessary fight for women’s bodily autonomy. And the cafes in downtown Tehran would very soon be closing their doors. This would not bode well.

With the increasing escalation of the conflict with the United States, the daily lives of Iranian people are becoming more difficult. It is not just attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman or the devastated economy that are making life harder for them – so too is the balance of power that has shifted within Iran as a result of conflict with the US.

During my trip to the capital, I have been able to take a look behind the scenes over the last few weeks. Downtown Teheran still has many European-style cafés bearing witness to the rise of the middle classes. Many Iranians are rebelling against the rigid rules of the Islamic Republic. A colourful poster, entitled The Fight for Women’s Bodies, advertises a controversial exhibition. In the shopping malls too, I saw self-confident women spurning headscarves. The cafés and shopping centres are still havens for the cosmopolitan middle classes. But that could change.

I was told of the increasing number of checks and arrests on the grounds of immodest clothing. Even private institutions have reportedly come in for increased scrutiny from the guardians of public morals, mostly over infringements of the strict alcohol laws. Arrests are a daily occurrence.

All of this may sound rather banal on the scale of potential war. But it also shows that the balances within the apparatus of power have shifted. The Islamic Republic was never a homogenous bloc – that would cover foreign policy in the same way as it does concepts of (limited) civil freedoms, such as clothing regulations. 

Whilst the inner circles of current President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif militated for diplomacy and the nuclear deal with the United States, the hardliners have always been sceptical about the plan. Again and again whilst I was in Teheran, I heard this argument: the hardliners have been evidentially proven right with their warnings – you can’t trust the US, as they stepped away from the nuclear treaty, even though the country continued to honour its obligations under the deal. 

This has taken the wind out of the sails of the more moderate factions of the system. The opposition’s power has dwindled away too. There has been scarcely any sign of the widespread demonstrations of just last year. People have other things to worry about.

Hope rests on European shoulders

In particular, they had hoped for more from the Europeans. To begin with, the EU stated loud and clear that it wanted to rescue the agreement. Its chances of doing so were always slim, as European businesses and, in particular, banks have been hit by the US sanctions; but to this day, even the few options they have remain almost entirely unused. The word in Teheran is that apart from statements, the EU has achieved almost nothing in the past year.  

The textbook example of this is the trading platform Instex. As Iran has been cut off from the global transaction system Swift, due to pressure from the United States, it is almost impossible to do business with the country and hence transfer money. Instex, a kind of clearing mechanism involving no money transfer through banks, is supposed to help. But the mechanism is still not up and running. For this reason, even the most elementary humanitarian transactions are next to impossible. I heard about a German pharmaceutical company that was prepared to supply goods that were urgently needed in Iran and for which there were the means to pay. However, the transaction cannot take place.

Even though there are fewer discordant voices within the Iranian leadership, there is still not anything that could be described as a clear strategy. Instead, there is mutual mistrust and no power to act decisively. Accordingly, the Iranians are currently unable to enter into direct discussions on Trump’s offer in a sovereign manner. It would be useful, from Teheran’s point of view, to take a look at North Korea, humiliation by the Americans put aside. Kim Jong-Un has so far managed to use his political bromance with Trump to avert the worst of the tension with the United States.

Iran, on the other hand, has acted provocatively, announcing its intention of breaking the rules of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But that’s all talk. According to the protocol to the nuclear treaty, the first step would be for the International Atomic Energy Agency to take note of the breach in its quarterly report; that would be in late August. Then, the matter would be referred to a Committee of the United Nations. This means that it could be a few more months until the full raft of sanctions were back in place.

If, however, Iran were to give the impression that it wanted bombs, Saudi Arabia, emboldened by Trump’s solidarity, could get the idea of acquiring nuclear weaponry itself – the Saudis would not struggle to do this, as they could buy nuclear weapons from their close partner, Pakistan, for instance. And that in turn would be a considerable security risk for Iran as well.

My time in Teheran was therefore by no means reassuring. Nerves are on edge and, just as is the case in Washington, there is no clear strategy as to what they wish to achieve and how. That is where the Europeans come in. 

Europe must calm the diplomatic crisis

However, the only high-ranking visitor from the EU in recent weeks has been the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas. It was a good gesture, but ultimately an ineffectual one. Apart from some kind words and a couple of photo opportunities, Maas brought little with him. 
Even so, Europe now has the means to calm a major diplomatic crisis. But time is of the essence.

The losers would not just be the emerging middle classes. If people’s greatest concern is where their next meal is coming from, there is not much energy left over for the urgent and necessary fight for women’s bodily autonomy. And the cafes in downtown Tehran would very soon be closing their doors. This would not bode well.

 

Please note: This article was first published on ZEIT ONLINE on 26 June 2019.