Iran’s leadership has locked itself into a “vicious cycle” that has cut it off from its own people and the international community, the US special envoy has said, adding that Washington was more focused on Tehran’s decision to arm Russia in Ukraine and the repression of its internal protests than on talks to revive the nuclear deal.
“The more Iran represses, the more there will be sanctions; the more there are sanctions, the more Iran feels isolated,” Rob Malley, the US special envoy on Iran, told a conference in Rome.
“The more isolated they feel, the more they turn to Russia; the more they turn to Russia, the more sanctions there will be, the more the climate deteriorates, the less likely there will be nuclear diplomacy. So it is true right now the vicious cycles are all self-reinforcing.
“The repression of the protests and Iran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine is where our focus is because that is where things are happening, and where we want to make a difference,” Malley added.
The US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said at the weekend there was worrying evidence that Russia was seeking to deepen military cooperation with Iran. Ali Bagheri, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, was in Moscow at the weekend.
One senior European diplomat said Iran was paying a huge cost for its decision to become the only country to arm Russia in the war against Ukraine. “It’s an unholy alliance and a massive miscalculation by Iran,” the diplomat said.
The Iranian regime says the protests have reduced over the past week as its crackdown has intensified, but a call has been made for protesters to take to the streets on 14 December.
Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, said on Saturday that the government was reviewing the law on the compulsory hijab, one of the issues that sparked the protests that have lasted more than 10 weeks. Montazeri also said the “morality police”, who are responsible for enforcing the dress code, had been “closed”, but he gave no details.
The next show of US solidarity with the protesters is likely to come when it tables a motion to throw Iran off the UN committee on the status of women in a vote due on 14 December, Malley said.
The move follows a UN human rights council vote on a motion tabled by Germany and Iceland to establish a fact-finding committee of inquiry into the protests, which Iran has said it will boycott. The Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, in a letter to the UN, urged the organisation to examine the sexual harassment of women being held in jail.
Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, has set up an internal fact-finding commission, but he said on Sunday that political parties and student representatives would not sit on it.
Some senior European diplomats believe an irreversible turning point has been reached from which Iran’s leadership will not recover. The diplomat said: “The situation is really quite simple. The Islamic Republic – the regime – after 43 years has finally lost contact with their people and that is what this is really about. This is different from anything that’s gone before in the previous 43 years.
“They are having a dialogue with themselves but the main population finds the offers of reform as largely an irrelevance.”
The diplomat also detected tensions within the regime over how to respond to the protests, saying: “There is a lot of internal disharmony around different bits of the particular security apparatus in terms of passing responsibility for handling the protests.”
The diplomats believe the regime’s self-evident loss of domestic support is sharpening the internal Iranian debate about whether to reduce its isolation through a growing alliance with Russia, or instead try to revive the nuclear deal.
Malley’s remarks suggest the US believes Iran has taken a series of fateful decisions that make a full revival of the nuclear deal, in which the west lifted some economic sanctions in return for controls on Iran’s nuclear programme, a political impossibility for now, although he said the door to diplomacy was not shut if Iran’s leadership changed course.
The revival of the deal was about to be sealed in August when in America’s view Iran added fresh demands separate to the deal calling for the dropping of a UN nuclear inspectorate inquiry into Iran’s past nuclear activities at three sites. The UN inspectorate has said Iran’s explanations for the presence of the nuclear particles are not credible. Iran said the inquiry into its past activities was inspired by Israel.
With the UN inspectors given only the most limited access to Iran’s nuclear programme and its growing use of more advanced centrifuges, the west’s nuclear negotiators accept that Iran may be weeks away from being able to produce enough enriched uranium to create a nuclear bomb. But Haines said the US did not have intelligence that Iran was trying to weaponise the uranium stockpiles.