A difficult phase for Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions

The current phase is not convenient for the Islamic Republic of Iran: nuclear negotiations have stalled

Raghida Dergham

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The current phase is not convenient for the Islamic Republic of Iran: nuclear negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have stalled and the desired agreement may not be reached by the deadline set on July 20. The events in Iraq will further weaken Iran if the Sunni uprising against the government of Nouri al-Maliki moves against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in coordination with the United States, as it had done previously with the tribal Sahawat (Awakenings). The developments in Gaza have implicated Iran through the rockets used by Hamas in its battle with Israel, as Israel accuses Iran of supplying those rockets to Hamas and is inciting the U.S. Congress against Tehran. Iran’s main ally Hezbollah is coming under renewed pressure and attempts to blockade it financially by the United States and the Gulf nations, and, relatively speaking, it is under siege on the ground in Syria and Lebanon, with the changing features of crossings and borders there. In Syria, where Iran is sparing no means to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power, there are signs of new U.S. policies that depart from the traditional policies of the Obama administration vis-à-vis Syria and the Syrian opposition.

Iran wants the sanctions to be lifted as part of an agreement, but Obama is unable to offer anything more than to waive the enforcement of some of the sanctions imposed on Iran by presidential decree

Raghida Dergham

As concerns the nuclear negotiations taking place in Vienna, which have reached a crucial stage, there are two major differences between the U.S. and Iranian positions, namely: first, Iran’s determination to be in possession of “breakout” nuclear capability that will enable it to acquire nuclear weapons within mere months, while President Obama is unable to go to Congress and the American people requesting their approval for a deal that would make Iran a legitimate nuclear power. And second, Iran wants the sanctions to be lifted as part of an agreement, but Obama is unable to offer anything more than to waive the enforcement of some of the sanctions imposed on Iran by presidential decree.

Constrained by domestic politics

Dr. Gary Samore, former adviser to President Obama on weapons of mass destruction, said in a telephone interview organized by the Clarion Project with diplomats and journalists, “Both sides are very constrained by domestic politics. President Obama can’t sell a nuclear deal to Congress if it allows Iran to retain a credible nuclear weapons option, and President [Hassan] Rowhani cannot sell a nuclear deal to Supreme Leader Khamenei if it requires Iran to give up its nuclear weapons option.”

Samore is strongly opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. He is the president of United Against Nuclear Iran and the executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. Dr. Samore expects that in the event a final deal is not reached, the interim agreement would be extended and renewed for another six months, as this would serve the interests of both sides: Iran would get more gradual sanction relief without abandoning its nuclear program, while the United States (and its allies) would succeed in continuing to freeze the most important part of Iran’s nuclear program.

In Dr. Samore’s view, Iran “will not make any significant concessions” in the nuclear negotiations until the picture becomes clearer in terms of American-Russian relations in light of the developments in Ukraine. Tehran, according to Samore, believes that open disputes between the United States and Russia weakens the consensus within the P5+1 countries (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) on demanding concessions from Iran. Ultimately, breaking this consensus and the unity among the P5 +1 is an Iranian desire.

Dr. Samore also believes that Supreme Leader Khamenei has realized the credibility of the U.S. military option, and therefore accepted rapprochement, tasking President Rowhani to handle nuclear negotiations - but not other outstanding issues - with the United States. For this reason, he will continue to be engaged in the negotiations because it helps him at least to stave off economic disaster from Iran, bearing in mind that lifting the sanctions reinforces Iran’s stability to some extent without it having to give up its nuclear ambitions.

But Iran has so far failed to convince major international companies to return to do business in the country before a final nuclear deal is concluded. The United States had imposed sanctions on Iran under six laws, some related to its nuclear program and others to Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, or human rights abuses inside Iran.

Overcoming the obstacles

It is not clear how the Obama administration would overcome the obstacles created by these laws and distinguish between one and the other. Obviously, the most severe sanctions that Tehran wants to get rid of are those that prevent foreign (non-American) companies from dealing with Iran, or otherwise be punished by a U.S. boycott.

The greatest damage to the Iranian economy is caused by U.S. efforts that restrict Iran’s oil exports and Iran’s access to hard currency, as Iran is subject to sanctions that block its access to oil revenues.

Iran wants the sanctions to be lifted completely when a nuclear deal is reached. But this is something that Iran is not going to get, according to Dr. Samore and other experts. The reason is that Iran is calling on the United States to withdraw or cancel sanctions under a new law, which requires the approval of Congress to pass a new law revoking old ones, including the D’Amato Act, which links sanctions on foreign companies to Iranian foreign policy, particularly with regard to its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

The best President Obama can offer, according to Samore, is to exercise his powers to waive the enforcement of sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program every six months. But in theory, Congress can challenge this as well if it obtains the support of two thirds of its members.

Therefore, there are two main - Iranian-American - hurdles in the nuclear negotiations: First, Iran wants a deal to give it legitimate nuclear “breakout” capacity, something that the United States cannot agree to nor Barack Obama can sell to congress or even the public that supports his appeasement of Iran; and second, Iran wants from the Obama administration things that the U.S. president cannot deliver no matter how much he may want to.

A natural partner?

In Iraq, Tehran tried to market itself as a natural partner for Washington to crush ISIS and combat Sunni terrorism in Iraq. In the beginning, Iran was able to mobilize support for such a partnership, especially in the media. But it soon became clear to Washington that the best partner to crush ISIS would be Iraqi Sunnis.

Washington realized that it still has ties to Iraqi Sunnis who had helped Gen. David Petraeus in the tribal Awakenings operations against al-Qaeda, as these people are well known to Washington.

If Iraqi Sunnis will be able to defeat ISIS and establish their own government instead of the “emirate” or the “caliphate” in Mosul, this would enable Washington to deal with the tribal Awakenings, as well as Saudi and Jordan, to push for a deal between Mosul and Baghdad for power sharing. This would most certainly hurt Iran, because it would involve weakening its influence and its project, and force Nouri al-Maliki to step down.

In Syria, Washington is aware that is policies there have failed, having ignored for years the moderate Sunni elements in the Syrian opposition. For this reason, Washington is recalculating, and reviewing the nature of its relationship with the Syrian opposition from the standpoint of the balance of power on the ground. There are indications that Washington is convinced that it would not be in its interests to collaborate with the regime in Damascus and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to combat Sunni or Salafist terrorism. Washington is assessing where its interests lie, but also the need to crush the terrorism growing in Syria before it reaches its home soil. Washington believes that this requires a partnership with the Sunni majority in Syria rather than the Alawi minority, according to sources.

There is also the Palestinian-Israeli event, where Israel is crying foul over the rockets launched by Hamas and supplied by Iran. This comes in the midst of the nuclear negotiations that President Obama wants to culminate in a deal, without being hindered by Congress, where an overwhelming majority declares that Israel is a priority and an unparalleled ally in the Middle East.

It is a difficult phase for Iranian aspirations then, whether nuclear, regional, or bilateral at the level of the relationship with the United States. However, this does not mean the end of the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, and does not mean at all that Barack Obama intends to give up his goal to achieve a historical deal with Iran.

Most probably, the nuclear talks would continue if no final deal is reached by the end of next week. Most likely, all players would prefer the continuation of the status quo where Iranian nuclear capacities are frozen to the satisfaction of Western powers, and sanctions are eased gradually to the benefit of Iran. To be sure, the Obama administration and Rowhani’s government do not want to sever the bilateral engagement that had begun between them publicly for the first time in decades - with the consent of Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Still, all this does not mean either than it is going to be impossible to reach a nuclear deal by July 20. Negotiations are ongoing, and interested parties are determined to make them work - each for its own reasons.

Regarding the American blessing of Iran’s regional ambitions, this, ostensibly, and perhaps out of necessity, is undergoing revision because of the conditions imposed on the ground.

At home, President Obama will not be able to obscure developments on the ground from Congress, and he will unable to guarantee that his policies would not bring back terrorism to the U.S. homeland. It is for this reason that he is hedging his bets. Indeed, the last thing he wants is for his legacy to be having brought back terrorism to American cities, as a result of his isolationism and aversion to war, when his predecessor George W. Bush had declared that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan succeeded in taking the war on terror away from American cities.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 11, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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