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August 2022 marks a year since Ebrahim Raisi took office as Iran’s President.
During his election, he committed to address several of Iran’s challenges. Progress on one—the stalled nuclear talks—may help him address others, including Iran’s struggling economy. This would help meet the demands of protesters motivated by rising living costs.
This Insight looks at current UK-Iran relations, progress on the nuclear talks, Iran’s economy, and allegations of continuing human rights abuses.
What is the current state of UK-Iran relations?
While the British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were allowed to leave Iran in March 2022, Morad Tahbaz, an American-Iranian national with British citizenship, remains. Morad was released on furlough in July, but the UK has called for his permanent release.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is currently investigating what more the Government can do in such situations, having been critical of its approach.
The BBC has also reported “escalating” harassment of BBC Persian staff, including asset freezes. Iran’s Government has previously denied the allegations. The UK Government regularly raises this situation with Iran directly.
The UK’s other priorities are to limit Iran’s destabilising activities in the region and for it to return to complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—the Iran nuclear deal). The Government considers the proposed deal “viable” and that it will consider “all options” if Iran continues with its nuclear programme.
How are talks progressing on the new nuclear deal?
In August 2021, Raisi committed to support “any diplomatic initiative” to end sanctions against Iran, signalling a willingness to restore the nuclear deal.
Raisi has denied any military purpose to Iran’s nuclear programme.
In 2018, despite Iran’s verified compliance, the US under President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, claiming it had failed to curtail Iran. The US reimposed sanctions on Iran.
Since then, Iran has incrementally violated the JCPOA’s terms.
Under the deal, Iran’s breakout time—the time it could take to produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapons—had been estimated at one year. The US now estimates it’s a few weeks. However, Iran would require one to two years to build an operational warhead.
Since April 2021, negotiators, including the US, have discussed restoring the JCPOA. However, talks stalled in March 2022. Reported issues included:
- Iran’s aim of seeing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removed from the US foreign terrorist list. One IRGC role is to operate overseas in support of Iran-aligned armed groups.
- Iran seeking to end the ongoing investigation of the International Atomic Energy Agency into undeclared nuclear activity at three Iranian sites.
- Russian demands that US-led sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine should not affect Russia’s trade with Iran (Russia withdrew this request).
In August 2022, negotiators met in Vienna. A deal is reportedly near.
A revived agreement would mean many economic sanctions are lifted. This would offer Iran a new export market for its oil in Europe and North America, now these regions are seeking to reduce their dependence on Russian supplies.
Iran’s turn to Russia and China
In recent years, Iran has also strengthened its relations with China and Russia. This “turn to the East,” may act as insurance if sanctions continue (though both support the JCPOA).
In July, President Putin visited Iran in a rare international trip. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed NATO’s expansion in Europe for the Ukrainian conflict. According to the US, Iran may provide Russia with drones for use in Ukraine.
How is Iran’s economy faring?
Lifting sanctions would also help Raisi meet his pledge to address Iran’s struggling economy. Economic sanctions restrict Iran’s trade, and there have been price increases due to the Ukraine war.
In 2021, the country marked a fourth year where annual inflation was above 35%. In April 2022, food prices were 40% higher than in 2021.
Protests and the Iranian Government’s response
Partly due to the economic situation, Iran has experienced several waves of protests.
Following the Government’s reduction in food subsidies in 2022, protests by workers, teachers, and pensioners developed in several cities. In June, the country’s labour minister resigned in response.
The protests have been contained, but the UN says “excessive use of force” remained Iran’s “default” response. Iran’s largest civil society organisation, the Imam Ali Popular Student Relief Society, was also dissolved by the Government in May.
Human rights and a rise in executions
Amnesty International has reported a rising number of executions under Raisi from September 2021. In 2021, Iran conducted 314 executions—the highest since 2017. This high rate continues: At least 251 people were executed between January and June 2022.
The UK has also criticised the increasing arrest of members of the Baha’i religious community, and seizure of their land. Long persecuted, the UN warned in March 2022 of “systematic” state discrimination.
1988 prison executions and Raisi’s alleged role
In 2022, international attention has also focused on Iran’s execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Raisi, then a judge, denies allegations he was one of those overseeing the executions.
In July, Iran condemned a Swedish court verdict that found a former Iranian official guilty of involvement in the executions.
The UK Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has previously criticised Iran’s practice of using hostages to exert diplomatic pressure.
House of Commons Library, Iran’s influence in the Middle East
About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.
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