How a nuclear deal will help Iran’s civil society


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Negar Mortazavi
Negar Mortazavi

Journalist and 2017 MENA Young Leader (EYL40)

Photo of This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.
This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

Friends of Europe’s Iran in Focus series aims to identify new approaches to diplomatic relations with Iran by establishing an understanding of the domestic political context and recent developments in international relations that jointly underpin the country’s political decision-making.

By taking a wider perspective on security and focusing on the role of women, the state of civil society and the human rights situation in the country, the series brings a fresh and informed perspective on diplomatic engagement that empowers domestic activism.

Amplifying a varied range of voices, these think pieces examine the challenges and opportunities of civic movements and organisations in Iran. Priorities include women’s rights and political participation, freedom of speech and of the media, the humanitarian considerations of international sanctions, and the role of international actors in Iran.

Our articles and the Iran in Focus series as a whole will engage with these overlapping themes, promote new and diverse opinions, and provide a coherent and progressive reconfiguration of diplomatic relations with Iran, including concrete conclusions and recommendations, based on strategic thinking and mutual interests.

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It’s been over a year since Joe Biden entered the White House and one of his campaign’s key promises was to revive the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That agreement was a momentous foreign policy achievement of the Obama-Biden administration that former president Donald Trump tried to unravel by unilaterally pulling the United States out of the agreement in 2018.

Today, after months of indirect yet intense diplomacy between Tehran and Washington, the two sides seem close to reaching an agreement to revive the 2015 deal and return to its full compliance. That means the US will lift various sanctions against Iran, and Iran will scale back its nuclear programme to the limits agreed in 2015.

The JCPOA is often discussed from nuclear and security, as well as economic and trade, perspectives. But not much is said about how a potential agreement may impact Iran’s domestic politics, civil society and various social rights movements. I spoke to a range of Iranian experts, both inside and outside the country, to examine the impacts of a nuclear deal on Iran’s domestic socio-political future, specifically concerning four key areas: human rights, women’s rights, political reforms and the struggle for democracy.

Mani Mostofi is an Iranian-American human rights lawyer and Director of the Miaan Group based in New York. He spoke to me about former US president Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” and economic sanctions and their impacts on human rights in Iran. Mostofi also talked about how the revival of the JCPOA and sanctions relief can have positive impacts on the Iranian civil society and the rights of Iranians.

The larger and more powerful the middle class becomes, the stronger civil society becomes

“If the JCPOA renewal delivers sanction relief, it will at least lead to some improvement of the economic and social rights of Iranians,” Mostofi told me, adding that the JCPOA was realistically never going to lead directly to much-needed civil and political rights gains. Still, Mostofi believes that diplomacy did give birth to new opportunities “like an EU-Iran bilateral dialogue on human rights in Iran”. But those opportunities evaporated after Trump shredded the JCPOA and effectively undercut any leverage the EU or European states might have to influence Iran’s human rights behaviour.

“So, both in the areas of civil political rights and economic social rights, the maximum pressure status quo is not going to help. Diplomacy is not a cure-all. Iran is a largely stubborn human rights abuser, and efforts aimed at accountability, like [the] UN Special Rapporteur, need to continue. Nonetheless, unless the US and Europe can also build leverage and move Iran away from its current trajectory towards Russia and China, I am not sure the international community will have any real chance of impacting the desperate human rights situation in the medium term,” Mostofi told me.

Next, the women’s struggles for equal rights in Iran has been driven by economic empowerment and increasing the power of the middle class, who have democratic and liberal aspirations. “The larger and more powerful the middle class becomes, the stronger civil society becomes. And a powerful civil society can more effectively defend the interests and rights of its citizens, and pursue its civic demands,” said Parastoo Sarmadi, a women’s rights activist based in Tehran, Iran. Sarmadi has been involved with Iran’s reform movement and the women’s rights movement for many years. I spoke to her about the impacts of sanctions relief on Iran’s civil society in general, and on the women’s movement in particular.

“We have learned from our experience in the last three decades that when the economic situation improves, people can move beyond daily struggles for basic needs and will pursue various social and political demands. And the women’s movement is no exception to this rule,” Sarmadi argued. “As we witnessed during the reform era, the women’s movement grew a lot. But later on when the economy worsened, the women’s movement was weakened like other civic movements. Another negative impact of economic sanctions is the intensification of the security environment in Iran, which is to the advantage of conservative forces in the country and to the detriment of civil movements, such as the women’s movement,” she added.

If the middle class shrinks, peaceful civil movements will be replaced by violent protests and riots

What these rights movements have in common is an appetite for social justice and equality in Iran, but the movements need to be backed up by strong economic and policy reform.

Azar Mansoori is leader of the Union of Islamic Iran People Party, Iran’s largest reformist political party. She has been a member of the party since its inception and eventually became the first woman to lead the group. She spoke to me about the deal’s impacts on Iran’s domestic politics and the future of reform and democracy in the country:

“Basically, any action and policy that leads to balance in Iran’s foreign policy will first help Iran’s crisis-stricken economy. The reality is that without engagement and exchange with the world and the necessary balance in this area, all of our economic indicators will be impacted – inflation, budget deficit, economic growth, gross domestic product, [and so on]. Also the continuation of sanctions is dangerous because in addition to isolating Iran and threatening the country’s existence, economic and social crises will also increase. In fact, as poverty grows, the Iranian middle class will shrink every day and the aspirations of the civil society, democracy-seeking groups, women’s rights activists and human rights defenders will be reduced to basic economic demands that we have recently witnessed.”

Monsoori continued: “The reform of governance in Iran is dependent on the political participation and demands of the middle class. If the middle class shrinks, peaceful civil movements will be replaced by violent protests and riots, which lead to bloody crackdowns by authoritarian forces and further closing of the political space, eventually blocking the path for peaceful civil activism. This situation not only threatens our national interests, it is also dangerous for civil society. Normalising relations with the world, both with the East and the West, will help Iran’s economic crisis in the short term, and in the long term it will benefit democracy and development in Iran. In the end, Iran’s diverse and plural society is more interested in becoming more similar to South Korea than North Korea.”

The Islamic Republic has grown more brutal and repressive in recent years

Lastly, a key component of the political reform in Iran has been a century-long effort to achieve participatory democracy in the country and empower all citizens to take part in decision-making for their future. Nader Hashemi is a political science professor and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Denver University. He has studied and researched Middle East politics, and democratic and human rights struggles in non-Western societies. I spoke to him about the impacts of the JCPOA on the future of Iran’s democracy movement.

“The JCPOA was widely celebrated by Iranian democrats and civil society activists in 2015. This is because the lifting of sanctions and global engagement held the prospect of creating better internal social conditions conducive to democratisation. It is difficult to fight for democracy on an empty stomach. Unemployment exacerbates this problem. The threat of war with the US further undermines the prospects for democratic mobilisation and struggle,” Hashemi told me.

“There are no guarantees that a return to the JCPOA will immediately revive the struggle for democracy in Iran. The Islamic Republic has grown more brutal and repressive in recent years. One fact that cannot be denied is that crippling sanctions have hurt the average citizen while strengthening Iranian hardliners both economically and ideologically. Nonetheless, there is deep discontent within Iran and a strong desire for political change,” Hashemi said, adding that this has been openly acknowledged by senior Iranian leadership on many occasions. “A more conducive international context that removes sanctions and the threat of war will benefit Iranian democratic forces. Time is not on the side of the regime; it is on the side of those forces that desire democracy and human rights,” Hashemi explained.

It is clear that a nuclear agreement with Iran and the lifting of sanctions will have far wider implications than limiting the country’s nuclear programme. Policymakers and diplomats should consider the deal’s positive impacts on Iran’s social and political space.

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