by Mitchell Plitnick
Once upon a time, it seemed that the Obama administration had held off opponents in Congress as well as pressure from Israel in order to press forward with negotiations with Iran. It seemed that President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy was finally bearing fruit and that the United States and Iran were coming to the table with a sense of determination and an understanding that a compromise needed to be reached over Iran’s nuclear program.
These days, the story is different. Almost halfway through the four-month extension period the parties agreed to in July, the possibility of failure is more prominently on people’s minds, despite the fact that significant progress has been made in the talks. Right now, both sides have dug in their heels over the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. Iran wants sufficient latitude to build and power more nuclear reactors on their own, while the United States wants a much more restrictive regime.
Part of the calculus on each side is the cost to the other of the failure of talks. Iran is certainly aware that, along with escalating tensions with Russia, the U.S. is heading into what is sure to be a drawn-out conflict with the Islamic State (IS). The U.S. and its partners would clearly prefer to avoid a new crisis with the Islamic Republic, especially when the they need to work with Iran on battling IS forces, however independently and/or covertly they may do it.
The U.S. certainly recognizes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked a good deal of his political life on eliminating the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. But both sides would be wise to avoid a game of chicken here, where they are gambling that the other side will ultimately be forced to blink first.
On the U.S. side, there are many in Washington who would not be satisfied with anything less than a total Iranian surrender, something the Obama administration is not seeking. Those forces are present in both parties, and, indeed, even if Democrats hold the Senate and win the White House in 2016, those voices are likely to become more prominent as time goes on.
But many believe that on the Iranian side, this is a life-or-death issue politically for the reform-minded Rouhani, and that may not be the case. It is certainly true that conservative forces in Iran, which had been ascendant under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are lying in wait to pounce on Rouhani if he doesn’t manage to work out a deal that removes U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. It is also true that Rouhani deals with a Supreme Leader who is highly skeptical not only of Washington’s sincerity, but of the kind program Rouhani’s reform-minded allies wish to pursue on the domestic front. Rouhani’s support derives most reliably from an Iranian public fed up with the failure of the conservatives to improve their lives. He dare not disappoint them.
But if Washington policy-makers believe that this amounts to a political gun to Rouhani’s head, they are mistaken. In a just-released paper published by the Wilson Center. Farideh Farhi, the widely quoted Iran expert at the University of Hawaii Manoa (and LobeLog contributor), points out that Rouhani does have options if the negotiations fall apart.
“To be sure, Rouhani will be weakened, in similar ways presidents in other countries with contested political terrains suffer when unable to deliver on key promised policies,” according to Farhi.
But he will continue to be president for at least another three, if not seven, years. The hardliners will still not have their men at the helm of the executive branch and key cabinet ministries. Given their limited political base for electoral purposes, they will still have to find a way to organize and form coalitions to face a determined alliance of centrists, reformists, and moderate conservatives—the same alliance that helped bring Rouhani to power—in the parliamentary election slotted for early 2016. And, most importantly, Rouhani will still have the vast resources of the Iranian state at his disposal to make economic and social policy and will work with allies to make sure that the next parliament will be more approving of his policies.
Farhi’s point is important. Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily depicted by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. As pointed out in a recent survey of Iranian public opinion we covered earlier in the week, this issue is particularly fraught in Iran. It has been a point of national pride that Iran has refused to bend to Western diktats on its nuclear program, diktats that are seen as hypocritical and biased by most Iranians. That estimate is not an unfair one, given previous demands by the U.S. (and one still insisted upon by Israel and its U.S. supporters) that Iran forgo all uranium enrichment. Such a position would force Iran to depend on the goodwill and cooperation of other countries — Russia, in the first instance — whose reliability in fulfilling commitments may depend on how they perceive their national interest at any given moment. Other countries are not held to such a standard, a source of considerable resentment across the Iranian political spectrum.
Rouhani has wisely chosen not to challenge the public on this point, but rather commit himself to finding an agreement that would end sanctions while maintaining Iran’s nuclear independence, albeit under a strict international inspection regime. This is far from an impossible dream. The Arms Control Association published a policy brief last month with a very reasonable outline for how just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.
In principle, both sides could live with such an outcome if they can put domestic politics aside. But of course, they cannot.
Still, the consequences of failure must not be ignored. With Barack Obama heading into his final two years as President, it is quite possible, if not probable, that his successor — regardless of party affiliation — will be much less favorable toward a deal with Iran. In that case, we go back to Israeli pressure for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran and escalating tensions as Iran feels more and more besieged by the Washington and its western allies.
Rouhani, for his part, may be able to continue his path of reform and re-engagement with the West, but the failure of these talks would be an unwelcome obstacle, according to Farhi.
Rouhani and his nuclear team have had sufficient domestic support to conduct serious negotiations within the frame of P5+1. But as the nuclear negotiations have made clear, the tortured history of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the history of progress in Iran’s nuclear program itself will not allow the acceptance of just any deal. Failure of talks will kill neither Rouhani’s presidency nor the ‘moderation and prudence’ path he has promised. But it will make his path much more difficult to navigate.
All of this seems to amount to sufficient incentive for the two sides to bring themselves toward the reasonable compromise that both can surely envision. At least, one hopes so.
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