From our November LDESP Middle East News Update.
As previously mentioned, the U.S.’s relations with several Middle Eastern countries are in flux. In addition to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the so-called Iranian “charm offensive” seems to be impacting relations between these two adversaries. In mid November, Iran and six world powers met to discuss the country’s nuclear program. Prior to the meetings, many were optimistic that the situation was ripe for diplomatic compromise; however, after failing to reach the coveted deal, the meetings ended with Iran signing an IAEA agreement granting more access to inspectors from the organization to Iran’s nuclear sites (shortly after the IAEA reported that Iran Put Brakes on Nuclear Expansion under Rouhani). While there were conflicting reports on what was the cause for the breakdown in talks, Colum Lynch and Yochi Dreazen, writing in Foreign Policy, argued “How France Scuttled the Iran Deal at the Last Minute”:
“Western and Iranian negotiators were putting the finishing touches on a far-reaching nuclear deal. Then, at virtually the last minute, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined in the talks. It didn’t take long for the negotiations to unravel — and for Fabius to publicly declare this round of the talks to be over.
It wasn’t the answer U.S., European or Iranian teams had been expecting. One Western official said Paris hadn’t been particularly involved in the painstaking negotiations that had taken place in the run-up to these talks in Geneva. “The French were barely involved in this,” one Western diplomat said. “They didn’t get looped in until a few days ago.”
Yet the French response shouldn’t have been a total surprise. The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel’s primary European ally and — after the U.S. — arguably its closest friend in the world.
Fabius, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to have had two serious concerns with the deal. First, the agreement failed to prevent Tehran from continuing construction on its nuclear reactor at Arak. Once the facility is operational, a key part of Iran’s nuclear program would be immune to airstrikes because bombing the plant would lead to massive, deadly, radiation leaks. Fabius was also upset that the deal didn’t require Iran to reduce its stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium, which is approaching weapons-grade. The Hollande government, Fabius told French radio, would not be part of a “fool’s game.”
Publicly, Secretary of State John Kerry refused to say anything critical about the French, emphasizing instead that Iran and the so-called “P5+1” had made substantial headway towards a deal and would continue the talks later this month. “I’d say a number of nations – not just the French, but ourselves and others – wanted to make sure that we had the tough language necessary,” Kerry said on the Meet the Press. In the French media, there were reports that the big powers were united — and that it was Iranian negotiators who ultimately balked at making a deal in Geneva. Privately, though, many diplomats were fuming at the French.
However, Fabius has been a voice of caution on an Iran deal before – most recently at talks at the United Nations in September. “In the past years, we have been vigilant on this issue,” said one French diplomat told The Cable. ” We have never been easy going on this.”
Fabius’s strong opposition to the emerging nuclear deal has won Paris some unexpected fans on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties want the Obama administration to maintain the current economic sanctions on Iran and even begin adding new ones.
“Thank God for France,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime Iran hawk, told CNN. “The French are becoming very good leaders in the Mideast.”
(…) Thousands of miles away in Tehran, Iranian leaders reacted with fury, reupping some previous remarks blasting France. “#French officials have been openly hostile towards the #Iranian nation over the past few years; this is an imprudent and inept move,” tweeted the office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy.”
(…) Beyond the rhetoric, France’s opposition to the deal carries clear risks. The U.S. negotiators and their Iranian counterparts have both warned that the window for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue won’t stay open forever. Not too long from now, Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. If the talks fall apart, France may have effectively scuttled any option of ending Iran’s nuclear program without using military force, something no country — including Israel — wants to do. Paris also risks seriously degrading its relationships with Washington and London, its two closest allies.” (Foreign Policy)
The list of skeptics of a legitimate nuclear deal with Iran runs quite long. In addition to France and several notable members of Congress, U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia have also expressed their concerns about negotiations between Iran and the West. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the proposed nuclear agreement an “extremely bad deal.” Meanwhile, Foreign Policy’s David Kenner explains “Why Saudi Arabia Hates the Iran Deal”:
“With U.S. and Iranian negotiators preparing for another round of negotiations, Washington’s relationship with Riyadh may prove the hardest to patch up. (…) Saudi concerns about Iran relate to a whole range of actions that the kingdom views as a threat to their influence in the Arab world — and even their grip on power at home. As a result, analysts and former U.S. officials say, Saudi Arabia sees any realistic deal as American acquiescence to Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. “[Saudi officials] don’t think this leads to a deal that leads to peace, they think this leads to Iranian domination of the Gulf,” said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “To their minds it doesn’t do anything about Iranian ambitions, it just takes the United States out of the equation as a force that’s helping box Iran in.”
But perhaps the group most fearful of relations between the U.S. and Iran, can be found in Iran itself. Iranian hardliners and members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have consolidated power and legitimacy for decades on an ideology grounded in anti-American sentiments. Just in early November when the P6+1 group were negotiating a nuclear deal, thousands of protesters sympathetic to the IRGC gathered in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran for the annual rally marking the 1979 embassy takeover during the country’s Islamic Revolution. Saeed Kamali Dehgahn reports on the struggle between Iranian hardliners and the new President’s diplomatic efforts in The Guardian:
“Reflecting remarks [in early November] by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said that he is not optimistic about the talks, Kermani said: “I don’t think the talks will bear fruit. They [the enemy] are not going to stop their hostility towards us.”
Despite Kermani’s warning, Rouhani’s diplomacy appears to have the support of Khamenei, who has ultimate power in all state matters. Khamenei has criticised those who labelled Iran’s nuclear negotiators “compromisers”, warning that they had a difficult mission and no one should “weaken an official who is busy with work”.
Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament has so far been silent about the trajectory of the talks, although a group of MPs criticised Rouhani’s team for keeping the details of a possible accord secret from the public and called them to parliament for questioning. Others said it was necessary the talks remained secret at this stage.
On 8 November, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, signalled his approval of the Geneva talks. He told the Isna news agency that the ground had been prepared for an agreement that would ease western sanctions and that it was compatible with Iran’s national interests.
Khamenei’s backing of Zarif’s team means many of the more hawkish fundamentalists have refrained from criticising the new government’s diplomacy directly. Instead, they have warned against giving in to the west’s demands. Before Rouhani’s largely successful visit to the UN in New York in September, Khamenei gave him more authority by talking of “heroic flexibility”. That visit brought a historic phone conversation between Rouhani and Barack Obama, the first direct talks between Iranian and US leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“Khamenei himself is also under lots of pressure,” an Iranian analyst said, asking not to be identified. “The hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards are surrounding him all the time and sabotaging Rouhani’s diplomacy by injecting scepticism about Americans and their intentions.”
As Rouhani passes his first 100 days in office, he can claim credit for a number of election promises that have been fulfilled. A number of leading activists have been released from prison and Tehran has taken serious steps to improve ties with the west, not least breaking the 34-year taboo of talking directly to the US at the highest level.
A Tehran University professor, Sadegh Zibakalam, said by telephone that he anticipated a historic moment in Iran’s relationship with the west. “We didn’t expect this, but it seems that Rouhani’s ‘key’ is opening many doors and a historic agreement may be under way,” he said, referring to the key Rouhani adopted as the symbol of his election campaign.
“We don’t know much about the details of this possible deal but to me what’s important is that for the first time in 35 years since the 1979 Islamic republic, it appears Iran and the west are trusting each other despite sabotage by hardliners in Iran, in Washington or Tel Aviv.
For the first time, it seems Iran has trusted the US and Europe’s words that they are not seeking regime change and that the sole issue here is the nuclear programme. The west, on the other hand, seems to have taken Iran’s word that it will open the doors to IAEA inspectors and have nothing to hide.”
Zibakalam said hardliners in Tehran were driven by rivalry with Rouhani’s moderate administration. “It is partly true that in general, hardliners don’t want the Rouhani team to succeed.
“They are even ready to sacrifice national interests for their political gains and internal rivalry,” he said. “There is also a third group of people who really don’t believe we should have any sort of dialogue or relations with the west.” (The Guardian)
Writing in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Akbar Ganji takes a different perspective on the he IRGC and the other elements of Iran’s internal dynamics. “Revolutionary Pragmatists: Why Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Won’t Spoil Détente with the United States”:
“It is fair to assume that any deal between Iran and the United States to freeze Iran’s nuclear program will be greeted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with cries of “Death to America!” Hassan Rouhani was elected president earlier this year with a mandate to seek just such a deal. But he still has to reckon with the fact that Iran’s most powerful military force has traditionally been a bastion for ideological hard-liners uninterested in building closer relations with the United States.
At the same time, any hope that the Revolutionary Guards have of playing the spoiler in a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement will be undermined by the fact that the force is implacably divided against itself, between those who are dead set against closer relations with the United States and those who are likely to support a deal.
This is not to suggest that the Revolutionary Guards don’t pose a threat to détente; its most hard-line factions certainly do. And those tend to be the most vocal — or at least the most visible.
(…) Around the same time, however, other prominent Guardsmen were offering a strikingly different message, by way of a revisionist interpretation of recent Iranian history.
(…) This emphasis on Khomeini’s overlooked pragmatism is entirely consistent with the preferred self-image of an increasing number of Guardsmen. Although the Guards were founded as an ideological organization, they have become vastly more pragmatic as they’ve acquired more power in the Iranian establishment. The Revolutionary Guards are no longer simply a military institution. They are among the country’s most important economic actors, controlling an estimated ten percent of the economy, directly and through various subsidiaries. And those economic interests increasingly trump other concerns.
(…) The Guards have also always shown signs of pragmatism when it comes to military strategy. They are aware that if talks between Tehran and Washington break down, the United States could begin to seriously consider a military intervention. Few leading Guardsmen are eager for that; unlike the clerical establishment that preaches resistance to the West, the Guards are very capable of calculating the material and strategic costs of escalation. (Foreign Affairs)
The Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, recently published a useful policy brief on “Requirements for an Enduring Diplomatic Solution to the Iranian Nuclear Challenge”:
“The long-simmering nuclear crisis with Iran is approaching a critical inflection point. The election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate former nuclear negotiator, as Iran’s new president has re-energized diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia). Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, and Rouhani believes he has a popular mandate and sufficient latitude from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reach an accommodation with the international community in exchange for lessening the pressure. The prospects for a comprehensive agreement to peacefully resolve the nuclear impasse have never been higher.
The most recent round of talks between Iran and the P5+1, held in Geneva, concluded on November 10. The negotiations were serious and sustained, including several hours of intensive bilateral discussions between the United States and Iran. Differences between the parties have been narrowed, bringing the broad contours of an interim nuclear agreement into view. Nevertheless, a number of sticking points remain. Talks are set to resume in Geneva on November 20.
We do not yet know whether an initial deal will materialize. But if it ultimately resembles the agreement described in recent press reports, it would be a meaningful first step on the road to a final, comprehensive accord to address the Iranian nuclear challenge.
In the coming months, the opportunity to meaningfully constrain Iranian nuclearization could be seized, leading to a peaceful resolution of a decades-long conflict, or squandered, setting the stage for an Iranian nuclear bomb, another war in the Middle East, or both. Achieving a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will require continued commitment to serious, tough-minded negotiations, and close cooperation between the Obama administration and Congress. Given the profound distrust between the United States and Iran, care must be taken to maintain diplomatic momentum and avoid missteps and backsliding that could otherwise put the parties on the road to confrontation. In particular, as U.S. negotiators work to get an initial agreement by the end of 2013 to halt the most troubling and urgent dimensions of Iran’s nuclear enterprise, Congress should refrain from imposing additional sanctions or taking other actions that would tie the hands of U.S. diplomats and undermine the prospects for success.” (Center for a New American Security)
Iran News Headlines
- Meanwhile, it seems that other U.S. allies, such as Britain, are embracing the warming relations with Iran: “Iran, Britain Envoys on Path to Restoring Ties” (The Nation, AFP)
- Iran Hardliners Block Rouhani’s Domestic Reforms (Financial Times)
- Kerry Warns Fresh Iran Sanctions Could Scuttle Nuclear Talks
Secretary of State John Kerry has told US lawmakers any new sanctions against Iran would risk ruining talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme. He told a Senate banking committee that the US might lose negotiating partners if it imposed economic penalties. The panel has been considering a fresh package but legislators are divided on the measure. (BBC)
- Khamenei Controls Massive Financial Empire Built on Property Seizures (Reuters)
- Opinion by renowned Iran expert, Abbas Milani: Two Reasons Why Iran Resumed Nuclear Negotiations
Two conflicting realities have helped bring about this sudden change of strategy, and unless we understand both, then the ways to a potentially enduring solution to the now-snagged negotiations can’t be found. (…) First and foremost, the nuclear reality the Iranian regime apparently hoped for was to have a break-out capacity: the ability to have not the bomb, but the ability to build one in short order. (…) The second important fact to consider is the cost of this break-out capacity. With the increasing bite of sanctions, and with eight years of utter corruption and incompetence during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure, the Islamic regime has suddenly faced the reality that their long-sought break-out capacity has been bought at an exorbitantly high price. (New Republic)