Economy in meltdown
Amid unpaid wages, soaring inflation and daily protests in Iran, the Vienna negotiations drag on, reports Yassamine Mather
With contradictory headlines dominating the news media, the future of the Iran nuclear deal is still in doubt, although all sides in Vienna agree there has been some progress. The United States and its allies are blaming Iran for taking too long to make decisions, a US state department spokesperson is quoted as saying, “The runway is very, very short - weeks, not months.”
Bizarrely, Iran is still refusing direct talks with the US. Not only are all discussions conveyed via intermediaries in the European, Russian and Chinese delegations, but after almost every stage of the negotiations the Iranian team flies back to Tehran to consult the government or the supreme leader. It seems the Iranian negotiators don’t trust even the most sophisticated internet security apps. With good reason, perhaps they fear their discussions or, even worse, the exact location of the officials they consult inside the country, might be exposed to the US or Israel, potentially endangering their lives.
A main source of information is the Russian delegation head, Mikhail Ulyanov, usually with optimistic or pro-Iran messages. On January 15, he wrote:
We expect agreement to be reached at #ViennaTalks. For that #Iran should be as realistic as possible. Western partners should refrain from applying psychological pressure. Quiet diplomacy works.
Ulyanov also retweeted a message from Abas Aslani, an Iranian delegation representative:
Many tables & their columns have been prepared. Some brackets were erased & agreements on ideas are largely done & are being turned into words. Key issues remain requiring political decisions esp by US. If this happens, we’ll reach a durable agreement at a good pace.
Residents of Iran’s western region reported hearing loud explosions in a number of provinces, including Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Hamadan, some near Iran’s main nuclear plants. The regime’s security forces denied any links to these explosions, and media affiliated to them tweeted that people had heard “massive thunder”. “We had no explosions in the city”, Saeed Kitabi told the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp’s Fars News Agency. But the governor of Asadabad city in Hamadan ruled out the ‘thunder’ assertion, and social media was full of rumours of Israel targeting IRGC bases.
The cold war between Iran and Israel continues in the form of propaganda, skirmishes and espionage. Last week Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, arrested five Israelis accused of spying for Iran. Four Jewish women of Iranian descent living in Israel, recruited by a handler - a man, Rambod Namda, claiming to be Jewish - were allegedly paid to take photographs of sensitive sites and monitor security arrangements, and maintained contact via Whatsapp. According to the BBC, quoting Shin Bet:
… a 40-year-old woman from the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon agreed to take photographs of the US embassy when it was still in the city, as well as the interiors of the Israeli interior and social affairs ministry buildings and a shopping centre. The handler also asked the woman to tell her son to join Israeli military intelligence during his mandatory military service, it said.
A 57-year-old woman from the town of Beit Shemesh is alleged to have encouraged her son to serve in military intelligence too and passed on military documents belonging to him. The woman was instructed to establish a club for Israelis of Iranian descent to gather their personal information, and attempted to become close friends with a female member of the Israeli parliament … She is also said to have installed a hidden camera in a massage room at her home, apparently to collect potentially embarrassing footage of her clients.”1
The accused deny these allegations. However, many Jewish Iranians who emigrated to Israel over the last few decades remain nationalist about Iran and resent their second class status as citizens in a country where white Ashkenazi Jews remain dominant economically and to a certain extent in terms of political power. At the same time Iran’s Jewish population, those who decided against migrating to the Zionist state, remain ardent Iranian nationalists even if they don’t like the current Islamic regime - as Benjamin Netanyahu found out when he extended a red carpet to them.
Like previous US governments, the Biden administration is behind the Iran-Israel cold war. On January 18 the US and Israel tested the Arrow 3 Weapon System - designed by Israel Aerospace Industries in collaboration with the Israel Air Force and US Missile Defence Agency, intended “to intercept ballistic missiles outside the earth’s atmosphere”.2
Regional and global complications constantly affect the nuclear negotiations, and the US is keen to add new restrictions on “Iran’s interferences in the region” - eg, Iran’s role in Syria, Yemen and its support for Shia Hezbollah and Amal in Lebanon. The latter two have announced that they will end their three-month boycott of the Lebanon cabinet, allowing it to make a new budget, trying to save the economy and currency from further collapse. The currency has lost over 90% of its value since 2019 and economists estimate that three-quarters of the population now lives in poverty. According to the World Bank, the Lebanese financial crisis is one of the worst since the mid-19th century.
On January 17 news agencies reported that Houthi rebels had carried out a drone attack on the United Arab Emirates, causing two explosions. At least three people were killed: a Pakistani and two Indian workers. The US blames Iran for its support of the Houthis. Retaliation came in the form of Saudi bombing of Houthi strongholds in Sanaa. Iran-UAE relations were at an all-time low during the Trump presidency, but tensions have reduced and economic ties strengthened over the last 12 months.
Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia too were tense during the Trump presidency, but recent negotiations between the two countries have now led to the arrival of three Iranian diplomats tasked with re-opening an Iranian Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) presence in Riyadh. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is also ready to reopen its embassy in Saudi Arabia”, but this would hinge on “practical efforts” by the Saudis. This is bad news for Iranian journalists and analysts employed by Saudi Arabia in its 24/7 propaganda efforts on TV stations and websites in support of US-inspired ‘regime change from above’ in Iran.
It is clear from the headlines of most Iranian dailies published inside the country that all known factions of the Iranian regime, from ultra conservative to ‘reformist’, are desperate for a deal. The economic situation is dire. The 25-year Iran-China co-operation programme that started its first ‘operational’ stage this week cannot save things. China has made the programme dependant on lifting some US sanctions against Iran, which is dependant on a nuclear deal. Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, is visiting Moscow from January 19, and will address the lower house of the Russian parliament. This might be good publicity for the new Iranian president, however Russia’s main concern is to encourage Iran to sign the nuclear deal.
As non-payment of wages, low pay and spiralling prices continue, every day sees new protests inside the country. Although these are mainly defensive, they express the desperation felt by workers, from car workers to teachers, miners to pensioners. While security forces try to disrupt such protests, they are now so numerous that the government seems to think little can be done about it.
The outcry against corruption and nepotism is so loud that even the main conservative daily, Jomhouri-e Eslami, admits it has become a serious problem. Its January 15 commentary entitled ‘Pay attention to this warning’ criticises the way the country is governed, warning that a thousand families, relatives and people with close connections to government and religious officials own or control everything. Reminding its readers of a similar situation under the ex-shah, the paper’s editorial tells us that nepotism and corruption was one of the reasons the shah’s regime was overthrown. It derides the appointment of ill-suited individuals simply because of their connection to clerics or government officials, warning that this is precipitating the regime towards collapse. Strong language for a daily well known as the ardent supporter of the regime, the conservative faction currently in power and the supreme leader.
To add insult to injury, the security forces this week arrested a niece of the supreme leader, accused of supporting and doing propaganda for Iranian royalists. Farideh Moradkhani was arrested on January 14, and some of her personal belongings were confiscated in a raid on her home. The arrest came after a video posted on social media showed her praising the ex-empress, Farah Diba, in an online event. Given the sad state of the country’s nostalgia for the shah’s period, fuelled by relentless propaganda from Saudi, Israeli and US financed broadcasting services about the ‘good old days of the royal era’, this is no surprise. However, it is yet another example of the superficial nature of the anti-western slogans of many Islamists. As sociologist Olivier Roy reminds us, the hatred of the west carries with it an envy of the west. In this case, religious Farideh is nowadays so intoxicated by ‘western values’ that she has become, consciously or unconsciously, a supporter of ‘regime change from above’.
Before Iranian royalists get too excited, let me remind them that a number of close relatives of the ex-shah became very disillusioned by his rule, openly echoing the slogans of the opposition. These included Patrick Ali Pahlavi, a member of the deposed Pahlavi dynasty who was heir presumptive from 1954 to 1960, before the birth of the ex-shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi. According to the Pahlavi constitution, Patrick was first in line for succession to the throne. It is also widely reported that in the mid-1970s, following the assassination of Catherine Adl (daughter of the shah’s personal physician) by the security forces, the shah’s eldest daughter, Shahnaz, opposed her father’s tyrannical rule and left Iran never to return.
All of this should be a warning to the Islamic Republic. Something must be seriously wrong when close relatives of dictators desert them and jump ship. This was true of the last years of the ex-shah and it is true of the rule of Ayatollah Khamenei.