Economic protests challenge Iran’s leaders as hopes for nuclear deal fade

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Street protests in several Iranian cities in recent weeks, sparked by the soaring costs of food and other staples, have underscored the challenges facing Iran’s government from global shortages caused by war in Ukraine and the continued imposition of Western sanctions as talks to restore a 2015 nuclear deal remain stalled.

In several places, the protests quickly took a political turn with Iranians chanting slogans against President Ebrahim Raisi and even the country’s highest authority and supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to social media posts and human rights activists, the violent crackdown on protests led at least 5 deaths and many arrests.

Videos posted online show protesters scrambling through streets while taking fire from security forces and being tear-gassed.

Prices spiked two weeks ago after the government cut subsidies for eggs, chicken, dairy products and cooking oil. Economists believe that the increase in bread prices earlier in the month is due to government adjustment to wheat prices, but also to the global shortage of this commodity as a result of Russia’s invasion.

The government had hoped that negotiations to revive the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers would lead to the removal of one source of economic hardship: Western sanctions that were reimposed on Tehran after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018. Many Iranians also blame corruption and ineptitude for the growing list of problems, which includes high inflation.

The current unrest recalls waves of protests that have broken out in recent years, including in 2019, when demonstrations were sparked by fuel price increases. According to human rights organizations, hundreds were killed and many were detained during protests that took place in several cities. According to human rights groups, the latest protests were smaller and concentrated in areas that are heavily impoverished, such as Khuzestan, in southwest Iran. This area is a common site for popular discontent.

Teachers have also been protesting for months to demand an increase in wages, amid complaints that educators work two or three jobs to get by. Security forces arrested at least 14 teachers at protests in early May, according to the Emtedad News site. In the Emtedad News site, senior politicians warned that there could be a backlash against the government due to the economic crisis.

A return to the nuclear deal would lead to the removal of many sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

Talks in Vienna earlier this year between all the signatories to the deal, as well as the United States, stalled in March due to an Iranian demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the strongest military force in the country, be removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

The Biden administration has not replied to the demand, but Israel’s prime minister, in messages posted on Twitter this week, said Biden had confirmed to him in a telephone call late last month that he would “keep … the IRGC” on the list, “which is where it belongs.

The European Union’s coordinator for the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, Enrique Mora, visited Tehran on May 11 in an attempt to restart the nuclear talks, but Iran’s leaders may have already reached the conclusion that the deal is out of reach, observers say.

“The recent moves of the Iranian government send a very clear message that they’ve lost hope in the nuclear deal or don’t want to enact it,” Saeed Leylaz, an economist and political analyst based in Tehran, said in a telephone interview, referring to the subsidy cuts. “With these economic reforms they’re sending the message that they don’t depend on the deal anymore.”

The United States has also expressed pessimism. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said that the chances of reaching a deal are “at best, tenuous.”

Even if the nuclear deal is restored, Iran, like many other countries, is likely to suffer from the global wheat shortage.

“The issue of wheat is tied to issues of food security, international security and the crisis in Ukraine,” Leylaz said. “With the current estimates, it appears that it may be a tough winter in terms of supplying foodstuffs.”

Ordinary Iranians are already feeling the pinch. Atoosa is a Tehran resident who has lost her job and said that the price of eggs and milk have risen at the local supermarket. People have started comparing the prices in different shops to find better deals.

“We can’t do anything. She said that everything is under the control of the government. They could take this away if they so desired. We’re all just a bunch of slaves.”

Grocery stores are not necessarily benefiting from the price hikes. A worker in Shahr-e Kord’s grocery store, which is located in central Iran, stated that the price hikes have caused their business to drop by half.

“The milk that we sold has more than doubled in price. It’s sitting there, nobody is buying it. It’s eggs, chicken, and it’s all one,” the worker said. He spoke under anonymity to protect his identity. Everyone is complaining and unhappy about these prices. It would be great if they brought the prices down.”

Security forces appear to open fire on a crowd of protesters in Shahr-e Kord in one video posted on social media. A second video shows an officer in plainclothes dragging a man off the roof of a vehicle, amid the sound of gunshots.

Protesters chant “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to Raisi” while gathered around what appears to be a burning car in the town of Ardal in another video posted online.

Many videos posted on social media in the past two weeks show the heavy presence of security forces in full riot gear in numerous cities, including Tehran. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified by The Washington Post.

Along with deploying security forces, the Iranian government has also tried to curb the spread of videos and information about the protests by slowing down the Internet. NetBlocks is an Internet monitoring organization that recorded severe interruptions to Internet access in Iran between May 1 and 2.

Iranian officials have said the government will give financial support to low-income families to offset the recent price increases but officials have also not ruled out raising prices on other goods. Raisi stated that government officials will make some tough decisions, but did not provide further information at a meeting in Tehran on Saturday about privatization. According to YJC (an Iranian news website affiliated with state television),

“These protests and frustrations are not unexpected at all,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. “This is a culmination of an economic collapse and a complete loss of faith in the political system.”

“The country is very volatile and hungering for change,” he said.

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