“It is a very, very dangerous move.”
That’s how Nazila Fathi, a former New York Times correspondent in Tehran, describes President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.
President Trump had been threatening to pull out of the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), since even before he came into office. Considered one of President Obama’s signature diplomatic achievements, the deal, signed by a slew of other countries including Russia, China, and Germany, lifted economic sanctions on Iran and imposed safeguards to prevent the country from developing a nuclear arsenal. At 2 pm Tuesday, Trump announced that the United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran in six months.
America’s decision will have a significant impact on Iranian domestic policy. Iran “has influence in all the conflict regions in the Middle East, and this [could] be a beginning of a nuclear arms race again in the region,” Fathi told me. “More than anything else, it would discredit the US government for a very long time.”
Fathi, who was born in Iran, reported from Tehran until 2009, when she left the country after her safety was threatened. She is also the author of the 2014 book The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran.
Our conversation took place shortly before Trump’s official announcement that the US will withdraw from the deal and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How popular is the Iran deal in Iran?
The data that does exist — every once in a while, various groups, for instance the University of Maryland, have made phone calls to Iran and have generated some numbers — typically reports that 50 percent are in favor or 50 percent are against. But I don’t think this data really says anything accurate because the government is so against any kind of data and surveys [and people are afraid of that].
So what I’m telling you is my own personal impression. After the nuclear deal, there were huge celebrations on the streets. Generally there was a sense of relief, because for the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, basically, the country had reached some kind of agreement with the West. First of all, this gave some kind of recognition to the regime itself, but people were simply happy because after years of tension, the shackle of a possible war over Iran’s nuclear program was lifted.
For the first time, Iran had been able to reach a kind of diplomatic solution to a crisis that had crippled its economy and had waged a psychological warfare against Iranian people.
Iran’s economy did not fully recover after the nuclear deal. The sanctions squeezed Iran’s economy, but the downward spiral had begun before the sanctions were tightened in 2010 and under Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his eight years in office —2005 to 2013 — mismanagement and corruption were rampant, and many economists believed it would take years for Iran’s economy to recover from the impact of the sanctions and [the government’s] mismanagement.
The Iranian currency had devalued tremendously; unemployment was high. And expectations were high that after this nuclear agreement, Iran’s economy was going to improve. The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, started warning that that was not going to happen overnight. And that was very logical — but still, expectations were very high.
It became clear that there are a lot of unhappy Iranians out there who blame the government for not being able to increase the economy. I do think that some people might complain that the nuclear deal hasn’t been good for Iran. But it would be difficult to say whether they want the nuclear deal to be abolished and go back to the situation they were in 10 years ago or not.
Is it possible to gauge the specific positive or negative effects of the deal on Iranian domestic policy and on the economy?
Yes. First of all, the economy did grow. The World Bank recorded that the Iranian economy grew very well in 2016. The GDP growth was bigger than the GDP growth here in the US. And the government was able to create some jobs.
But the unemployment was so bad and the inflation was so bad that it wasn’t something that could get fixed over a period of two or three years. [Ahmadinejad] damaged the economy — and there was a lot written about this — when he was in office. That was a lot more devastating to Iran’s economy than the sanctions.
So there was economic growth, the GDP grew, unemployment rates dropped. But the worst blow came just a few months ago, when the Iranian rial [Iran’s national currency] plunged another 35 percent. It’s unclear whether this was because of anxiety that Trump was going to pull out of the nuclear deal, or maybe the Iranian government was trying to hold on to the US currency that it has before the rial plunges, because then it will have a hard time selling oil and earning revenue. We don’t know exactly what it is.
President Rouhani, who supports the deal, is often described as a centrist with liberal leanings. To his right, there are political groups who oppose the deal. Could you give me a brief overview of the major political players and where they stand?
So this ultimate decision-maker is the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, especially on foreign policy and big matters like this. I think Iran has not been very clear on what its position is going to be once the US pulls out of the agreement. And I think that has been a very smart move. They don’t want to make any kind of stress without knowing what’s going to happen — especially now that they know that Europe and other countries are lobbying on behalf of Iran and they don’t want the US to pull out of the deal.
There are two major factions in Iran when it comes to foreign policy: those who believe Iran must improve its ties with all countries, including the United States, in order for its economy to thrive; and the more hardline factions who favor hostile relations with the US and Israel, believing the hardcore values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution will thrive if the country is isolated. Iran’s supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards [the country’s conservative military institution that was set up in 1979 to protect the revolution] represent the latter, while President Rouhani, who won with an overwhelming majority, represents the first group.
But the ultimate decision would be the supreme leader’s. And the problem is that the Revolutionary Guards would love for Iran to pull out of the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal was a blow to their economic activity. Before the deal, they were the only organization in the country that was smuggling oil and bringing revenue to the country and were responsible for supporting the economy — so they lost a lot of clout when the sanctions lifted.
If Iran pulled out of the nuclear deal, or even if just the sanctions are reimposed, that will put Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in a wonderful position — because the Guards would once again be responsible for selling Iran’s oil and bringing in revenue.
So if the US pulls out, will there be political consequences in Iran? Will it benefit the right-wingers?
Absolutely. It would be a huge blow to Rouhani, his team, and to whoever has supported the deal.
And if the US pulls out, what happens to the deal in general? How likely is it that Iran will remain in the deal?
I think that is the $1 million question that no one knows the answer to, because it also depends on how Europeans react, how China and Russia react.
But the problem is that if the sanctions are reimposed, it would be very hard for any other country to do business with Iran because New York is the hub for so many business transactions. Most multinational corporations have some kind of American bank or American partnership, so they wouldn’t be able to invest in Iran.
Since the deal was struck in 2015, there’s been a lot of progress in terms of oversight of activity and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities — but do you think the deal could be rewritten in some way that would satisfy the different parties involved?
The problem with the Trump administration is that they don’t know what the goals of this agreement were and what its purpose was. The purpose was to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities — to stop the threat of a war in the region and also to stop and prevent the regional countries from getting into a nuclear arms race.
The minute that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are certain that Iran is on the verge of having a nuclear weapon, they would want to have their own nuclear program — and that is extremely dangerous. So the purpose was to stop the nuclear arms race in the region and to limit Iran’s ability from reaching a nuclear weapon. And it did.
If there are other issues that need to be added, the Trump administration or the European Union or other countries can enter into new negotiations with Iran and try to address them. But to get rid of a deal that has been reached after years and years of negotiation and is the most important diplomatic accomplishment in recent years is absolutely crazy.
How will this decision affect the US-Iranian relationship in general?
First of all, if the United States proceeds to pull out of this nuclear deal, it would discredit itself. I don’t know how the Trump administration would be able to pursue talks with North Korea. If the US is so unreliable and cannot value the agreement that a previous administration has made, why would another country come to the negotiating table with the US?
Inside Iran, the Iranian people are probably the only country in the region that have been pro-US, despite everything that has happened ever since September 11. All the other Middle Eastern countries have very strong anti-US sentiment.
The only bad memories that Iranians have of the US is their interference in Iran in 1952 and when the US toppled the democratic government of [Mohammad] Mosaddegh. And it took years for Iranians to sort of, not forget it, but to put those feelings aside. It’s not going to be good. It’s going to stay in the memory of the Iranians.
If the US pulls out, how worried would you be about what happens with Iran’s nuclear capabilities?
I don’t think it’s just the nuclear ability of Iran. You’re not talking about a country in the Middle East; you’re talking about the country that has [one of the strongest armies] in the Middle East.
It has a presence in many countries in the region. It has influence in all the conflict regions in the Middle East, and this can be a beginning of a nuclear arms race again in the region. It is a very, very dangerous move. More than anything else, it would discredit the US government for a very long time.
All I can say is that President Trump has been talking about helping democratize Iran, and this is exactly the opposite thing to do. It would undermine all the democratic forces in Iran. It would put huge economic pressure on the Iranians themselves. And it would deprive them of any kind of ability to rise up and demand change in the country.
Update: After Trump officially announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, I spoke again with Fathi, briefly.
What’s your reaction now that the announcement has been made?
Iranian hardliners had accused Rouhani’s government of naively negotiating with an unreliable partner, and Trump has now proven that the US is indeed unreliable. Today is a bad day for the US foreign policy — Trump didn’t even explain what he will replace the nuclear agreement with. [The deal] wasn’t a perfect one, but it could serve as a foundation to negotiate other issues with Iran.
Correction: The World Bank report on the Iranian economy was for 2016, not 2017.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.