For most of 2014, the global media spotlight shone on Iran, primarily as diplomacy over the country’s nuclear programme gained momentum, and high level meetings between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China + Germany) took cenre stage in international affairs. The fate of Iran’s nuclear talks could be a game-changer at the domestic level in Iran, as well as at the regional and international levels.
Two major developments unblocked the path towards meaningful negotiations between Iran and the West, aimed at untying Tehran’s nuclear Gordian Knot. First, the Supreme Leader Ayollah Ali Khamenei repositioned his firm stance of “no talks with the Great Satan” by introducing the concept of “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy. Second, the US abandoned its decade-long policy of “zero uranium enrichment inside Iran”.
From the Americans’ perspective, primarily that of US President Barack Obama and his administration, one may read between the lines that for a number of reasons, this opportunity cannot be missed.
First, extremely motivated moderates are in power, led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Yes, the Supreme Leader ultimately makes decisions but varying foreign policies under different presidents, despite having the same Supreme Leader, clearly show that presidents still play a major role in shaping Iran’s foreign policy. The reformist Mohammad Khatami pursued a reconciliatory foreign policy, and adopted a cooperative approach on the nuclear issue, making numerous overtures to the West including the US, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad followed a confrontational foreign policy on all fronts.
Rouhani’s political experience and credentials are virtually unmatched in Iran. He served as Head of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Parliament (Majlis) for eight years and was Secretary of the National Security Council (NSC), the highest advisory board to the Supreme Leader, for 16 years. Rouhani also spent 23 years, from the inception of the NSC, as Khamenei’s representative on the Council until June 2013 when he won the presidential election. This places Rouhani in a unique position of influence with Iran’s Supreme Leader while he negotiates with foreign powers to strike a deal.
Second, considering the now Republican-dominated Congress, concerns abound over the tenuous nature of continued nuclear talks. Failure would most likely result in tougher sanctions against Iran, the result of which would be a halt in communication and dialogue between Iran and America. As such, the pattern of previous years, whereby Tehran would expand its nuclear programme, begetting even tougher US sanctions, would only perpetuate itself.
The history of international relations dictates that when governments fail to overcome their differences through dialogue, the only alternative becomes a military solution. As turmoil already engulfs the Middle East, the Obama administration cannot afford to engage in yet another full-fledged war with unpredictable consequences.
Third, Iran’s rivalries with Saudi Arabia and Turkey have destabilised the region, culminating in a disastrous Syrian war, giving rise to jihadists that threaten the security of the region and, thereby, American security interests. If the US stands any chance of resolving the complex, international endeavour of bringing stability and peace back to the region, it is also imperative for it to bring Iran in from the cold.
Obama’s opportunity to forge an historic legacy lies very much in ending the Iranian nuclear crisis, one of the most contentious foreign-policy issues confronting the US since the Cold War.
From the Iranians’ perspective, it is also vital to reach a nuclear deal sooner rather than later. Sanctions, primarily the US unilateral sanctions on the oil and banking sectors, have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy. This, coupled with the recent fall in oil prices, has left Iran’s economy deeply vulnerable. Until recently, the impact of the sanctions was cushioned by the high price of oil. Prior to the most destructive US wave of sanctions against the oil and banking sectors, Iran generated $95 billion (Dh349.4 billion) in revenue from its oil export in 2011. Even if the prices climb up to around $70 per barrel, this revenue will drop to $25 billion in 2015.
Sources maintain that Iran is aware that if it fails to clinch a deal with Obama and his team, his successor will likely align with both houses of the US government, intensifying sanctions even further.
Politically, Rouhani and his camp’s fate are tied to the outcome of the nuclear talks. Failure of the talks would mark the return of radical politics in Iran. In the best case scenario for Rouhani, he and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, would be pushed to the sidelines. More likely, it would mean the downfall of Zarif and in the worst case, Rouhani, himself.
Success of the talks would present Iran’s moderates with an opportunity to solidify their position, significantly increasing the likelihood of winning the March 2016 parliamentary elections. It would also positively influence the 2016 elections for the Assembly of Experts (the body of 86 mujtahids tasked with the selection of the next Supreme Leader in case Khamenei passes away), as well as Rouhani’s re-election in 2017.
During their latest round of nuclear talks, negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 extended their self-imposed deadline for a final compromise to July 1, 2015. Still progressing, Obama and his administration are determined to successfully end this crisis for the reasons discussed earlier. It is true that a fierce fight over nuclear compromise with Iran can be expected between Congress and Obama, but for reasons previously presented by this author, it is unlikely that the Congress can win this battle.
From the Iranian perspective, especially with lower oil prices that many experts believe will sustain into the foreseeable future, the country needs sanctions to be removed, or at least meaningfully eased. This would result in a boost of its oil exports, access to its oil revenues currently denied by the US and the Europeans, and to its blocked overseas assets that exceed $100 billion.
In 2015, moderates led by Rouhani must fight a war for survival and all viable roads lead to the realisation of a nuclear deal. Might Rouhani be able to convince the Supreme Leader to accept compromise? He has done so in the past.
Between 2003 and 2005, while Rouhani was the NSC’s Secretary and led the Iranian side in talks with Europe, Iran voluntarily suspended its uranium enrichment as a confidence building measure. This happened thanks to Rouhani’s keen negotiation skills not only with Europeans, but also towards the members of the NSC, and, more importantly, Ayatollah Khamenei, who was fundamentally reluctant about suspension.
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada.