News / Middle East

    Column: Tehran Politics Constrain Nuclear Talks

    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to the Council on Foreign Relations ahead of next week's UN General Assembly.
    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to the Council on Foreign Relations ahead of next week's UN General Assembly.

    Among the arguments Iranian officials are marshalling in the nuclear negotiations that resumed this week in New York is that domestic politics severely constrain their ability to compromise.

    This is the best we can do, they seem to be saying: Accept our position or you will face even more hardline interlocutors in the future.

    Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations Wednesday evening in New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reminded the elite audience what happened in 2005 when the George W. Bush administration rejected a prior Iranian nuclear offer: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, Iran accelerated its nuclear program and Zarif, a pragmatic former UN ambassador, was forced into “early retirement.”

    Eight years later, Zarif was reinstated and promoted by Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani.

    “Now that I’m back from the dead,” Zarif quipped, “it’s important for us to be careful about the type of messages the international community is sending to Iran.”

    Under Iran’s bifurcated political system, a cleric — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — has the final word on all key foreign and domestic decisions. Supreme Leader Khamenei laid out parameters that seem to require a large expansion of Iran’s uranium enrichment program before 2021 when a current agreement with Russia to provide fuel for Iran’s sole nuclear power plant at Bushehr expires.

    Khamenei’s red lines may also be reflected in Iranian refusal so far to reduce the number of centrifuges they currently operate — about 10,000 — and Tehran’s demand that the duration of any restrictions on the program be relatively short.

    “We have to establish confidence,” Zarif said on Wednesday. “If you cannot establish confidence in five years … then the agreement is meaningless.”

    Zarif pointed out that it is not just Americans who are suspicious of Iranians but vice versa. “Don’t ask us to put all our faith in promises while you’re not prepared to accept our promises,” he said.

    U.S. negotiators also appear to have boxed themselves in by insisting on a significant initial reduction in centrifuges and an agreement that lasts for at least a decade.

    Speaking in Washington Tuesday, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the principal U.S. negotiator with Iran, said, “I fully expect in the days ahead that Iran will try to convince the world that on this pivotal matter, the status quo — or its equivalent — should be acceptable. It is not.”

    A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity Thursday evening, was slightly more upbeat. The official described initial bilateral talks with the Iranians in New York as “constructive,” adding that “it is clear that everyone has come here to go to work.”

    Still, the extent of the gaps between positions on key issues has generated pessimism about the prospects for agreement over the next ten days when the world’s leaders descend on New York for the annual summit of the UN General Assembly.

    The mood this year is even more somber because of multiple other crises, from the Ebola epidemic in Africa to the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine and the rise of the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) group.

    Proponents of a nuclear deal with Iran argue that it is a prerequisite for U.S.-Iran collaboration on other urgent regional problems.

    “Those in Iran who want to pursue a dialog [on other issues] don’t have the power to do so without a nuclear agreement,” Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of State for political affairs and veteran ambassador, said Thursday at a meeting in New York sponsored by The Iran Project, a bipartisan group largely comprised of former senior U.S. officials.

    A new report from the group — endorsed by other former State Department heavyweights including Ryan Crocker and former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft — argues that “a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program will be a catalyst for change in the ever-turbulent Middle East [that] may involve new forms of cooperation … with unusual bedfellows.”

    “There is a strong link between settling the nuclear standoff and America’s ability to play an effective role in a rapidly changing Middle East, and that a nuclear agreement will help unlock the door to new options,” the report adds.

    Iranian officials have rejected overtures for overt collaboration against IS, although tacit understandings appear to have been reached in Iraq, where both the U.S. and Iran support the Baghdad government and Kurdish authorities. Syria, where the U.S. opposes both the IS militants and the government of Bashar al-Assad, is more problematic.

    Frank Wisner, a member of The Iran Project and former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and India, said Iranian participation in a “Geneva III” process was essential to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war, which helped give rise to IS. “The most significant source of influence in Syria is Iran,” he said. Iran would be prepared to discuss a political transition in Syria that did not require the removal of Assad as a prerequisite, Wisner added.

    Without a nuclear deal, however, the chances for U.S.-Iran collaboration on any other issue will be slim and elements in Iran that historically have distrusted the U.S. will be empowered, the experts said.

    Already, the Rouhani government is facing pushback from some members of the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary and the parliament, which — in a mirror image of critiques of Obama by some Republican hawks — argue that Zarif and company have already conceded too much.

    Without a deal by Nov. 24, the current deadline, Rouhani — who campaigned on a promise to get nuclear-related sanctions lifted — would be weakened further. More ideologically rigid politicians would likely win upcoming elections for the body that nominally supervises the Supreme Leader — and picks his successor when he dies — and for the Iranian parliament in 2016.

    Zarif, perhaps Iran’s most adroit and articulate spokesman, of course is partly spinning when he warns of dire consequences if the U.S. rejects compromise. But there is an element of truth to his arguments and the history of Iran shows that officials who unsuccessfully attempt rapprochement with the West are quickly marginalized — or worse.

    Given the history of missed opportunities and misunderstandings on both sides during three decades of estrangement, it would be prudent for U.S. officials to give some consideration to the possible political fallout in Iran and the implications for the wider Middle East if these nuclear negotiations fail.


    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

    You May Like

    US Internet Giants, EU Reach Deal to Combat Online Hate Speech

    Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft commit to ‘quickly and efficiently’ act to clamp down on use of social media to incite violence, terror

    Video Tunisia’s Ennahda Party Begins a New Political Chapter

    Party now moves to separate its political and religious activities; change described by party members as pragmatic response to political and economic challenges facing Tunisia today

    Virtual Reality Fine-tuned at Asia Tech Show

    Microchip designers hope to improve resolution for users of systems that can turn your bedroom into the ocean floor

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Change Iran Now from: Las Vegas
    September 22, 2014 4:18 AM
    The one essential truth in Iran is that decisions on international treaties and security and military decisions falls exclusively to the Supreme Leader, Khamenei. His wishes are tantamount to law and as such his opinions are the only ones that matter. Anything else, such as Zarif's attempts to portray some sort of political struggle between moderates and hardliners in Iran is so much smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that Iran is indeed united and committed deeply to its nuclear program because Khamenei and the ruling mullahs are lock step on this path. This is why when Khamenei went on a public rant about the US and Iran's commitment to maintain its centrifuge capacity and missile technologies he basically sank the talks because his opinion is the only one that matters. Rouhani has almost no power when it comes to reaching any sort of agreement, and as a loyal regime hardliner who had previously run the regime's intelligence and security portfolios, his thinking is in line with Khamenei's. There should be no doubts by the West on where really stands and if it wants change, it will first have to get change in Iran's religious leadership.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conferencei
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    May 30, 2016 5:11 PM
    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora