Iran’s Khamenei needs the nuke deal more than Obama

As the negotiators huddle in Vienna, it is the Iranian delegation who has the most to lose if an accord is not reached

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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Notwithstanding the anti-American show that Iran’s hardliners are displaying in the streets of Tehran ahead of a possible nuclear deal this week, it is the Iranian leadership - more than anyone else on the P5+1 negotiating table – who badly needs an agreement and cannot afford to walk away empty handed from Vienna.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the art of double speak has become a way of practicing politics in the last seven years. Shoring up his Anti-American rhetoric at home while negotiating with the U.S. the most intricate details of inspections into Iran’s nuclear sites, Khamenei saw in the nuclear deal a strategic necessity to ease Tehran’s economic woes without sacrificing the public mantra of the “Islamic Revolution. ”

As the negotiators huddle in Vienna, racing the clock to beat a Congress deadline for a 30-day deal review by midnight, it is the Iranian delegation who has the most to lose if an accord is not reached and the talks continue open-ended. More than the legacy U.S. President Barack Obama or his Secretary of State John Kerry, it is the Iranian economy, its President Hassan Rowhani, and Khamenei who stand to lose the most if the deal collapses.

Those who argue that an Iranian nuclear deal would give Obama a foreign policy legacy tend to forget that the 44th president is a risk-averse, cold and a very calculated politician

Joyce Karam

When Khamenei quietly reached out to the U.S. via the Omani government in 2009, it was not because he or the Revolutionary Guard were fascinated by the Cairo speech or Obama’s extended hand to the Islamic world. It was the weight of the sanctions, the echoes of the “Green movement” that rattled Iran’s leadership, and over 24 percent of unemployment among Iranian youth, that made Khamenei reconsider.

Today’s record low oil prices, $100 billion of frozen Iranian money in international banks and an Iranian GDP that has shrank by 8.6 percent, Iran’s economy is on the cusp of a real crisis if no nuclear deal is reached. The agreement if concluded promises an imminent release of the frozen assets, gradual lifting of sanctions and would open the door for American investments in Tehran after 36 years of boycott.

Also, an overstretched Iranian military role by proxy regionally gives the deal and its revenues more urgency to Tehran. While U.S. officials hope that the released money and the lifting of the sanctions would go towards improving the oil and economic infrastructure in Iran, Tehran’s proxies including Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad are eagerly waiting and in dire need for funding. Lebanese policymakers speak of a more financially constrained Hezbollah as it expands its fight in Syria, and increases its role in Iraq and Yemen.

While a deal could empower Rowhani and the more moderate figures in Iranian politics, the same way that a collapse in talks would dramatically hurt his fortunes, it is unlikely that a deal would prompt a change in Tehran’s foreign policy in the near to medium term. Proxy wars across the Middle East have little to do with Iran’s number of centrifuges, and there are no signs of these wars abating in the near future.

Obama already has a legacy

Those who argue that an Iranian nuclear deal would give Obama a foreign policy legacy tend to forget that the 44th president is a risk-averse, cold and a very calculated politician. For Obama, restoring relations with Cuba, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama Bin Laden and rebranding U.S. image in the Middle East are all legacy items.

Even as the negotiators blow off steam in Vienna, Obama is playing cool towards the prospects of the deal, reportedly telling Senators that its chances are below 50-50. Moreover, a bad deal similar to the one with North Korea in 2004 could backfire on Obama’s legacy and the prospects of the democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

For Kerry as well, and while a successful outcome and a strong deal in Vienna, could grant him a Henry Kissinger moment in China in 1972, a bad deal will face congressional scrutiny and might not even enter implementation. Reopening the embassy in Havana next month will be a legacy story for Kerry, and one that doesn’t risk nuclear arms race if enforcement fumbles. There is no question that a strong verifiable deal with Iran could be the centerpiece of Obama's and Kerry's legacy, but it is not a make or break component for the U.S. president.

Concluding a deal in Vienna presents is a more urgent priority for Iran’s Khamenei than anyone around the negotiating table. Walking away is an alternative viable for Kerry and the rest of the P5+1 Foreign Ministers, but a very costly one for Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Jawad Zarif who has staked his political future and the economic fate of his people on such agreement.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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