Critics of the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign against Iran have long argued that the Islamic Republic is impervious to pressure. This claim never had a strong foundation: After all, extreme duress — prolonged diplomatic isolation, coupled with crippling economic sanctions — forced Tehran’s theocrats to begin negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal with the world powers.
More proof, if it were needed, of Iran’s susceptibility to pressure came this week, when the regime pledged to expand its cooperation with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. This announcement came soon after the United Nations nuclear watchdog rebuked Iran for failing to provide access to two sites where previous nuclear activity is thought to have taken place.
On Wednesday, during a visit to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, the regime said it had agreed to give inspectors access to the two sites. A joint statement didn’t say when the inspections would take place, but that dates for access have been agreed.
The statement allows Iran to claim that it was “voluntarily” providing access to the sites. Grossi seems inclined to draw a curtain of charity over some of Iran’s more dubious behavior during previous inspections: In October, Tehran bizarrely claimed an IAEA inspector had tried to smuggle explosives into the enrichment facility in Natanz. But Grossi retains the right to yank the curtain back.
The joint statement is laden with caveats: “In this present context, based on analysis of available information,” the IAEA doesn’t have further questions for Iran, or further requests for access. Speaking with journalists in Vienna on his return from Tehran, Grossi said he could imagine making fresh demands if presented with more information of suspicious activity. That information could come from the inspections, or from revelations by foreign intelligence agencies — those of the U.S. and Israel prominent among them — that pay close attention to the Iranian nuclear program.
President Hassan Rouhani asserted that the agreement with the IAEA showed “Iran is ready as ever to work closely with the agency in the framework of safeguards.” This interpretation is directed at the U.N. Security Council, where the Trump administration is persisting with a doomed effort to reimpose the pre-2015 international sanctions. Rouhani is hoping that the nuclear deal’s other signatories will use Tehran’s cooperation with the IAEA to strengthen their argument against the so-called “snapback.”
Alert observers will recognize that the cooperation was coerced. Grossi himself pointed out that the announcement was the “result of dogged, systematic dialogue,” which is diplomatese for hardball.
The Trump administration will no doubt interpret this outcome as an argument for keeping the regime in Tehran in an economic and diplomatic straitjacket. If, as expected, efforts to “snapback” international sanctions come to naught, the U.S. will likely tighten its own sanctions, designed to punish companies and individuals seeking to do business with Iran.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, American sanctions had hobbled the Iranian economy; the Covid-19 crisis has greatly sharpened the pain. The official death toll is nearing 20,000, but the real number is thought to be three times as high. Not even a stock market bubble can conceal the gloom. Saeed Laylaz, a prominent Tehran economist who had claimed, less than a year ago, that the Iranian economy was “stabilizing,” now concedes that the country has not come under this much pressure since the 13th-century Mongol invasion.
Even the regime’s prized nuclear program has shown itself vulnerable to sabotage — witness the blast last month at Natanz. Grossi and his inspectors would undoubtedly like a closer look there.
The regime will do its best to spin the new deal with the IAEA as a case for cutting Iran some slack. But there’s no concealing the reality that the Islamic Republic buckles under pressure.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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