Iran’s leadership is holding the ongoing nationwide protests in contempt, viewing them as leaderless uprisings that are doomed to fizzle out. The regime is also betting that international denunciations of its repression of the protests will go away because of the global preoccupation with the Ukraine war. Thus, Tehran is not paying much attention to statements of condemnations coming from around the world.
The death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police last month triggered a wave of protests that were met with violent repression by the authorities, killing scores of young people. The "Hijab Revolution", as some have dubbed the uprising, has erupted against the imposition of the headscarf on women, sending shockwaves of awe and disgust around the world.
But European leaders are mostly turning a blind eye in order to avoid antagonising the Iranian regime and, consequently, encouraging it to continue rejecting a nuclear deal. The failure to finalise an agreement will almost certainly lead to a harsh winter for Europe – unless Tehran agrees to offset the embargoed Russian oil supplies – and into the resumption of Iranian-linked terror activities on the continent and the acceleration of its military nuclear programmes.
For its part, the Biden administration is avoiding burning bridges with Tehran, still trying to tempt its regime into a deal, while also imposing low-level sanctions. Indeed, Washington is claiming to support the protests based on its commitment to human rights, but is at the same time declaring that it’s not concerned with regime change in Iran.
Tehran would like to see the western policy of wilful blindness continue so that it can go on exporting its oil – and the oil it pilfers from Iraq – to countries in the East. This way, it can put down the uprising and dispel any notions of regime change at home and abroad.
In the Iranian leadership’s view, the protests are "emotional" and "psychological", led by small groups of young women and men belonging to a generation that has no experience organising politically. The regime believes it can prevent the protesters from organising themselves further by downplaying their importance and emphasising their apolitical nature, that is, by denying that they are protests against the regime’s mismanagement of the country.
With the world fearing that the Ukraine war could escalate into a nuclear catastrophe, it’s unlikely to rush to the help of the young Iranian men and women against the repression of their theocratic regime. This is exactly what the regime will be counting on.
Only the Iranian people can change this equation and surprise the regime’s men, and prove that their strategy is misplaced. If a critical mass is reached and a step change occurs in the minds of the people, cutting through generations, the 2022 protests could succeed where the 2019 uprising failed (both were triggered by injustices against young Iranian women).
The regime will look to put down the demonstrations as quickly as possible, to avoid further damage to the potential deal it wants to make with Europe and the US. It’s therefore important that, from its point of view, the protests end quickly and without further repression, but in a way that allows the regime to say that they were just an emotional outpouring. Once it has achieved this objective, it can wait for the US mid-term election to conclude before resuming its nuclear blackmail with an eye on the start-stop negotiations with the global powers.
The nuclear negotiations have reached a dead end right now, with US officials themselves conceding that they misread the Iranian regime.
The US and the Europeans realised that Tehran was willing to sacrifice the entire deal (and accompanying sanctions relief) in order to retain its advanced nuclear programme. The regime did not want the programme to be monitored by the IAEA, which was a red line for the Biden administration.
Washington has been more open-minded about separating other issues from the nuclear project, such as Iran’s military assistance to Russia in its war against Ukraine and Iran’s repression of the ongoing protests. The Biden administration has insisted that its goal remains to rein in Tehran’s military nuclear ambitions diplomatically. It has also maintained that a military solution is not an option as of today.
The question then is what options does the US have if the status quo continues, which is the stalemate between non-collapse of the negotiations and non-activation of the military option? This administration says it will follow the path of sanctions pursued by previous president Donald Trump and intensify those punitive measures.
What the US won't do is link the protests to these sanctions and negotiations. Indeed, the administration is satisfied with the measures it has taken so far in support of the protesters, denouncing the regime, imposing sanctions, and offering assistance to keep communication lines open between the protesters and the rest of the world. At the same time, pragmatism has prompted it to strike a balance between values that need upholding and the necessity to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is the same logic that prompts the Biden administration to not link the financial windfall that will benefit the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps following sanctions relief with Tehran’s regional behaviour, despite the administration’s admission of failure to find ways to stop the IRGC and its proxies’ subversive projects in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.