What’s Next? The Human Impact of the JCPOA Fallout

On a call with my cousin who lives in Tehran, we agonized over the aftermath of President Trump’s devastating decision to pull the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The lead up to Tuesday’s abrupt pull out prompted steep price hikes caused by the plummeting value of the Iranian currency. My cousin recounted her visit to the local market where a woman asked how much 1 egg was and after being told that it cost several thousand rials decided she couldn’t afford it. My cousin who is raising a thirteen year-old son in Tehran is highly anxious about the economy, the possibility of war, and her family’s unpredictable future. I am one of the 88% of Iranian Americans who still have close family in Iran, and along with them, I am highly concerned about the human cost of our president’s reckless dismissal of a successful diplomatic effort to resolve conflict with Iran.

As imperfect as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may be, its promise to promote America’s national and security interests in the world and to secure the safety of its allies through diplomacy rather than military action broke a rigid pattern of confrontation which shaped an unsuccessful foreign policy with Iran for over 35 years. In addition to preventing the Iranian regime from obtaining nuclear weapons and possibly sparking an arms race in the region, the P5+1 nuclear agreement and its promise of lifting nuclear-related sanctions, created a wave of hope and anticipation among Iran’s young, educated, and restless population. They believed that reintegration into the world community would present them with greater opportunities to engage with democratic values and undermine the message of the hardline elements in the Iranian regime that the United States is untrustworthy and to blame for the nation’s economic and security woes.

Normalizing relations with the international community implied a promise to rein in the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing behavior in the region and make authorities more accountable for the economic grievances of their citizens and their demands for human rights. It promised a means to re-engage with the global economy and created incentives for Iran’s policymakers to institute domestic financial and regulatory reforms to comply with international regulation in exchange for sanctions relief. While the JCPOA did not in the end provide substantial economic windfall or a fundamental, immediate driver of change in the behavior of the Iranian regime, it removed the United States as a scapegoat for the Iranian regime’s poor economic performance. As a result, in December of 2017, Iranian citizens across multiple cities in Iran took to the streets to protest economic hardships and political grievances, holding their own government accountable.

By reneging on a hard-fought agreement (on both sides) and the re-imposition of nuclear-related sanctions, President Trump’s decision to walk away from the deal and its implicit threat of military conflict is increasingly viewed by many in Iran as an indiscriminate punishment specifically targeting the Iranian population, giving Iranian regime hardliners new ammunition to deflect the legitimate grievances of their population, undermining the best hope for lasting democratic political change.

Moreover, with the promise that “powerful sanctions will go into full effect,” President Trump’s appeal to the “long suffering people of Iran” rings hollow. Instead, the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA signals a total disrespect and disregard for international commitments and sends a message to the Iranian people that the word of the United States cannot be trusted.

With the threat of an emboldened Iranian regime increasing hostilities in the region and against its own people, the re-imposition of sanctions should be targeted towards the Iranian regime and not the Iranian people. In addition, policymakers should support the Iranian people’s right to censor-free internet by pushing for the expansion of trade exemptions for telecommunication tools as well as the scope of general licenses for the export and re-export of medicine, medical devices, and agricultural commodities to Iran.

Now, more than ever, it is critical for the U.S. government to distinguish ordinary Iranian people — like my cousin and her family — from the regime by showing them outright support rather than banning them from travel to the United States. Promoting Iran’s civil society is our only hope for lasting democratic reform inside Iran.

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