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Iran's Nuclear Option

Once more, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Western countries find themselves at an impasse. Over the long history of discord and conflict, however, the present situation appears more intractable than ever. Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard, through a US drone attack at Baghdad international airport, the political pendulum has once again swung toward conservative and adversarial politics with the election of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline former Chief Justice, to the presidency. While his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, facilitated multi-party negotiations that placed Iran's nuclear programme under strict international monitoring in return for sanctions relief, the new government is stalling on a revival of the talks that were unilaterally ended by the Trump administration. Soleimani's portrait now looms over every major intersection in Tehran - the ultimate martyr to the cause of the Islamic Revolution and a reminder, if one were needed, of Western perfidy.

The new president is an acolyte of Ayatollah Ali Khameni, the ailing Supreme Leader, and is muted by some to be a potential successor. Raisi stands accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 and is sanctioned by the United States. And while his election is by no means an expression of the popular will, with a turnout of less than half of the electorate at the last presidential elections, all the levers of power - the presidency, the parliament and the judiciary - are now dominated by hardliners. Some of these feel emboldened by the spread of Iranian influence in the Gulf and are looking toward other markets such as China and Russia to sell the country's oil and gas which represent almost two thirds of exports.

This presents a serious challenge to Western countries looking to re-engage with the regime in Tehran. Seemingly unfazed by the continuing hardships under tight sanctions, Tehran seems to be buying time to advance its long-denied goal of gaining functioning nuclear weapons and entrenching its supremacy in the Gulf. And while the country's new anti-Western course is taking its toll on ordinary Iranians, with the value of the rial, the national currency, falling to a third of it's value before the reintroduction of sanctions in 2019, the political elite remains largely insulated from economic damage. Large parts of the economy are dominated by politicians and their families and the lack of competition from outside of the country has been a boon for many.

For Iran's youth, born after the Islamic Revolution, with only a tenuous connection to past struggles for the heart of the nation, the future looks bleak. In 2019, anti-government protests sparked by huge increases in the price of petrol quickly turned political, with people calling for the overthrow of the government and hundreds of thousands marching in towns and cities across the country. Some 1,500 protesters were killed and over 7,000 arrested. Hundreds of banks and government buildings were torched and burned to the ground. Much like the protest movement of 2009 after a disputed election, however, these protests also failed to achieve meaningful change. Since the protests, the government has tightened the screw on internet freedom, blocking services such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Medium. Economic stagnation has widened the gap between the rich and well connected and the majority of the population which is scraping together a living. Rising prices and the removal of fuel subsidies have pushed hundreds of thousands into poverty and one of the Islamic Republic's central tenets, that of a just and equitable society, is fast fading. With heroin from neighbouring Afghanistan selling at rock-bottom prices, untold numbers turn to drugs to numb the pain. It is estimated that Iran has 5 million heroin users. The government largely ignores the consumption of ostensibly illegal drugs, preferring to shelve the problem in rehab centres and hospitals.

Yet the health system is creaking and medicines are running low. Naser Khosrow Street near the Grand Bazaar has become a hub for black market medications. Everything is available here, but at a price. People able to travel abroad to other Middle East countries return with suitcases full of medicines. After Ali Khameni, the spiritual leader, banned the import of foreign made covid vaccines, deeming them untrustworthy, the Islamic Republic embarked on a major drive to produce its own vaccine to prove its imperviousness to Western sanctions at a time of a national health crisis. Iran is one of the worst hit countries in the Middle East in terms of Covid deaths by population yet the take-up of the locally made vaccines, including the Fakhra and Barekat, has been lacklustre and some products have had to be discontinued due to a lack of demand.

It appears that the previous US administration's policy of "maximum pressure" has not succeeded in breaking the will of the hardliners in government or, for that matter, that of parts of the population which continue to support their stance. Iran and the West are heading for a standoff and Israel, Iran's other main regional rival, is waiting in the wings. The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear physicist and the head of the country's nuclear programme, in November 2020 is widely believed to have been the work of Israeli intelligence and explosions at nuclear facilities in Iran can also be traced back to the Jewish State. With international observers maintaining that Iran is closer than ever to acquiring a nuclear bomb, the current crisis has taken on existential proportions.

Pascal Maitre travelled to Iran to see how ordinary Iranians' lives have been affected by the ongoing geopolitical storm.
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