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Will New Leadership in Iran Budge Stalled Nuclear Talks?

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On June 14, Iranians go to the polls to elect a new president, but will the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad serve as a turning point in Iran's relations with the West? If history is any indication, those relations could very well reach another dead end.

For more than a decade, since the discovery of illicit Iranian nuclear facilities in Iran in 2002, the United States and its allies have sought to halt Iran's nuclear progress through sanctions and inducements — tending to lean more heavily on the former than the latter.

Today, the West has never been more united in confronting Iran on its nuclear program, which Tehran has long contended is only for peaceful purposes. But the unprecedented international clampdown doesn't seem to have altered Iran's calculus — and may even be reinforcing it. Thousands of sophisticated new centrifuges are spinning and uranium enrichment has been stepped up.

Critics of America's current "dual-track" approach say it's too one-sided, with punishing sticks but paltry carrots, leaving Iran little incentive to change course. Others say the opposite — that sanctions haven't been tough enough, and Tehran is just biding its time to build up a nuclear weapons program regardless of Western cajoling.

Sanctions and Survival

A vast array of sanctions has turned the screws on Iran's economy. Iranians have been increasingly cut off from the international banking system and can't receive payments for their oil shipments, their most critical export. A European oil embargo has been in place since last July. Currently, China, India, South Korea and Japan are the biggest consumers of Iranian oil. But in exchange for a U.S. waiver, these countries have agreed to reduce their purchases, so Iran is receiving about 40 percent less in oil revenues than it was just a few years ago.

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Credit: UN Photo / JC McIlwaine
Members of the U.N. Security Council are briefed by the chair of the committee tasked with monitoring sanctions on Iran. The Security Council has slapped four rounds of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, in addition to various U.S. and European penalties.

Meanwhile, Iran's official inflation rate is currently at 31 percent but many believe it is even higher. Unemployment is up, some Iranians are hoarding essentials, there are reports of factories closing, and the Iranian currency has lost more than half of its value over the last year.

Despite squeezing the economy, sanctions haven't convinced Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reach a nuclear agreement with the so-called P5+1, which includes the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany.

In fact, he seems to have dug in even further, striking a defiant posture in a Persian New Year's address in which he told his countrymen that the "arrogant powers" of the world were trying to "cripple" the Iranian nation through sanctions but had failed. "If our nation resists their pressure, stays vibrant, and achieves more advances, they will lose credibility," Khamenei declared.

Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), says the address reminded him of one of his favorite sayings about Iran's leadership.

"Iran doesn't give in under pressure," he told us. "It gives in under great pressure."

Clawson believes the West needs to do more than create incentives for Iran. It has to come down hard.

"The element of the stick has to be an important part of what we do," he said. "We have to be able to credibly say to the Iranians, 'Things will get a whole lot worse for you, if you don't agree to this.'"

But opponents of that approach say it only hardens the resolve of Iran's leadership, which doesn't want to look weak by capitulating to Western demands, especially not with a looming election and possible power struggle ahead. At the same time, international condemnation could galvanize ordinary citizens — who usually feel the sting of sanctions more than the elite do — to rally around Iran's beleaguered government, helping to prop up the very regime that the United States would like to see go.

And for the regime, survival is key. A February 2013 report by the International Crisis Group argues that Western powers and Iran view sanctions and survival "through highly dissimilar prisms."

"European and U.S. officials bank on a cost-benefit analysis pursuant to which the Islamic Republic, at some point, will conclude that persevering on the nuclear track will prompt economic hardships sufficiently great to trigger more extensive popular unrest, ultimately threatening regime survival itself. But the world looks very different from Tehran," according to the report.

"There, the one thing considered more perilous than suffering from sanctions is surrendering to them; persuaded the West is intent on toppling the regime, the leadership views economic steps as just one in a panoply of measures designed to destabilize it. Its strategy, rooted in the experience of diplomatic isolation and the war with Iraq, can be summed up in two words: resist and survive, the former being the prerequisite to the latter."

In his blog posting "Our myopic approach to Iran," Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University likened the sanctions to blackmail, saying that "states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure."

He said years of harsh economic penalties, threats of military strikes, and a covert campaign of cyber attacks and possible assassinations targeting the country's nuclear program have only pushed the Iranians closer to nuclear "breakout" capability.

"We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots," he argued. "As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk."

Others, however, accuse Tehran of the empty talk, using negotiations as a pretext to fortify its nuclear weapons program.

Alon Ben-Meir of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University says Iran has obfuscated and stonewalled negotiations precisely because its ultimate aim is a nuclear bomb. "Iran is determined to neutralize Israel's nuclear advantage, and views the acquisition of nuclear weapons as central to achieving this strategic objective," he wrote in the analysis "Mastering the Nuclear Chess Game."

"As the only nuclear Shiite state, Iran would have a decisive advantage against its deadly rivals, the Sunni Arab world, as demonstrated by its unwavering support of Syria's Assad regime to safeguard its Shiite crescent stretching from the Mediterranean to the Gulf," he added.

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Photo: Hamed Saber / www.flickr.com/photos/hamed
Thousands of Iranians protest the country's 2009 election that ushered President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back to power. The reformers in the so-called Green Movement have been largely sidelined for the upcoming June 14 contest, which is filled with establishment figures, though term limits bar Ahmadinejad from running again.

Supporters of sanctions also point out that Iran is skilled at evading the brunt of economic pain.

"Given Tehran's large cash and gold reserves and still-substantial oil income ... sanctions alone may not make the regime more flexible in negotiations. To bolster diplomacy, and thereby diminish the prospects of military confrontation, the United States must intensify intelligence operations and use the military instrument in ways it has not been willing to thus far," wrote Michael Eisenstadt of WINEP in a policy analysis last year.

"Successful diplomacy may well depend on the administration's ability to convince Tehran that the price of failed negotiations could be armed conflict," he argues.

A year ago, talk of military action against Iran reached a crescendo, as a number of analysts predicted that an Israeli strike was imminent, though it never materialized. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon had redesigned its biggest "bunker buster" bomb, enabling it to destroy Iran's most important nuclear site. Still, in recent months talk of war has subsided, with the focus shifting to negotiations that offered a flicker of hope earlier this year.

Devil in the Details

For a time, it seemed as if Iran's moribund economy was bringing it back to the bargaining table, but the last round of talks in April went nowhere. After they broke up, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the expansion of the country's uranium production, along with other atomic energy-related advances.

But what exactly was in the deal that was put on the table?

The P5+1 offered modest sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on Iran's supply of enriched uranium along with an agreement to allow oversight of all of its nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Specifically, the proposal by the P5+1 called for Iran to limit its uranium enrichment work, allowing it to keep a small supply of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity for medical isotopes while exporting the rest in exchange for nuclear fuel. Tehran would also have to halt work at its Fordow enrichment plant, which is buried deep underground. Originally, the P5+1 demanded the plant be shut down, but later said it would accept a suspension and steps that would prevent the quick resumption of enrichment there.

In return, after the IAEA verifies that Iran has taken the required steps, the P5+1 would ease some sanctions (on gold, precious metals and petrochemicals), but not on oil exports or financial transactions. Those would remain in place, though the United Nations and European Union would refrain from introducing new sanctions (the United States was notably absent from this pledge).

Diplomats with the P5+1 said the onus was on Iran to show "confidence-building measures" before Western powers would reciprocate.

The Iranians said that wasn't good enough. "From our side, [the proposed] relief of the sanctions is not proportionate with what they are asking Iran to do," an Iranian official who did not want to be identified told Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor. "They are asking Iran to suspend 20 percent enrichment, and reduce the readiness of Fordow, which from our point of view is [the same as] shutting Fordow down. We argued that there is no balance between what they are asking, and what they are offering."

The official also said there was no clear framework for reciprocal action even if Iran submitted to all the measures. "There is no guarantee here, about when and how [P5+1] confidence could be built. You are only relieving some of the sanctions, not lifting the sanctions."

But the likelihood of repealing the most onerous sanctions is remote. It's far easier to put sanctions on the books than to take them off.

"Many of the most serious sanctions are problematic because they are tied to Iran's human rights violations," said Alireza Nader, a native of Iran who is a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. "Some of the sanctions can be rolled back, however. The P5+1 wants Iran to make a gesture to build confidence so sanctions can start to be lifted, but Iran is hesitant to take action without a guarantee that sanctions will be lifted, so that's why you see the gridlock in the talks."

Clawson also doesn't see the United States or its allies abruptly lifting sanctions anytime soon.

"If you look at our record with regards to sanctions in Libya or Myanmar, for example, we tend not to remove sanctions until there is demonstrable progress and a clear commitment on the part of the other country to change," he said. "So lifting sanctions on Iran would be, at best, phased in and contingent on Iran dropping its support for international terrorism and improving its human rights record."

Indeed, it appears as though the political winds in Washington are moving toward more, rather than fewer sanctions on Tehran. In May, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation that would further tighten the economic noose on Iran by preventing the government from accessing its foreign exchange reserves, estimated to be $100 billion or more, in the banks of other countries.

Counterproductive Diplomacy?

But a group of influential former diplomats and policy experts from the Iran Project issued a report in April asserting that the sanctions policy may be backfiring.

Sanctions, the report concluded, have "contributed to an increase in repression and corruption within Iran" and "may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States."

Among the signatories were retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and foreign policy heavy-hitters such as Lee H. Hamilton, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ryan Crocker and Joseph Nye.

"It is time for Washington to rebalance its dual-track policy toward Iran, strengthening the diplomatic track in order to seize the opportunity created by the pressure track," the report stated.

That sentiment was echoed in a recent report by the Atlantic Council's Iran Task Force, which recommended that the Obama administration "lay out a step-by-step reciprocal and proportionate plan that ends with graduated relief of sanctions on oil, and eventually on the Iranian Central Bank, in return for verifiable curbs on Iranian uranium enrichment and stocks of enriched uranium, and assurances that Iran does not have undeclared nuclear materials and facilities."

The report, which said a military strike should be a last resort, also urged Washington to lay the groundwork for more expansive relations with Tehran. That includes boosting people-to-people ties through media outreach and cultural exchanges, supporting Iran's democratic evolution, and increasing trade in food and medicine.

Other experts say what Iran really wants is U.S. recognition that as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has an inalienable right to enrich uranium for peaceful civilian purposes. "But Obama — like his predecessor — refuses to acknowledge Iran's right to enrich," wrote Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett in a Reuters blog. "For this would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests — and as a rising regional power unwilling to subordinate its foreign policy to Washington."

Tehran's desire for "mutual respect, equality, and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic," as the Leveretts put it, may be what motivated it to offer up a new "comprehensive proposal" at the April nuclear talks that seemed to take P5+1 members by surprise.

The Iranians have long wanted nuclear talks to address everything from terrorism and drug trafficking to strengthening cooperation on Syria and other regional issues. Israel and other skeptical nations call that a stalling tactic to bog down the discussions. But others say a broader dialogue could satisfy Iran's longstanding wish to be recognized as a legitimate power and help it save face if it has to make any nuclear concessions.

To that end, some analysts have suggested that the United States and Great Britain, which don't have diplomatic relations with Iran, should dangle the possibility of normalization of bilateral relations. But Alireza Nader doesn't see this as much of an enticement.

"Normalization is often mentioned but I don't think it's realistic because it's not something that Iran necessarily wants," he said. "Establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. contradicts the Islamic Republic's narrative of anti-Americanism."

Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurs. "Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'être," he wrote in Foreign Policy in April.

"Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy," he added, "the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region — a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers — are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline."

Nader said that another incentive that has been discussed is addressing some of Iran's regional security concerns. Iran and the United States did briefly cooperate against al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Nader says that too is unrealistic, given the fact that Iran's interests fundamentally contradict U.S. interests in the region.

New Leadership Begets Status Quo?

At the moment, Iran's main interests are domestic, ensuring a smooth transition after the June 14 presidential election that keeps the clerical regime intact. Iran's new president could help set the tone for improved relations with the West or, perhaps more likely, maintain the status quo.

The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot run again, threw his support behind Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his top advisor, who is also married to his daughter. But on May 21, Iran's Guardian Council barred Mashaei from running, exposing the growing rift between Ahmadinejad, a fiery populist who increasingly challenged the clerical regime, and his one-time ally, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The Guardian Council also declared former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, considered by some to be a moderate, ineligible to run, leaving mostly establishment figures in the race.

Among the remaining eight candidates, frontrunners included Ali Akbar Velayati, the top advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei on international affairs; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran; Mohammad Reza Aref, the left-leaning former vice president under President Mohammad Khatami — who would be a frontrunner himself if he had decided to run — Mohsen Rezaee, the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard; and Saeed Jalili, Iran's current chief nuclear negotiator, who recently said talks with the P5+1 can resume anytime, whether before or after the election.

Nader of the Rand Corporation says it's very difficult to handicap the race, but notes that none of the candidates have engaged in any of the Holocaust denial or anti-Israel rhetoric that became Ahmadinejad's hallmark.

"We don't know who will win," he said. "But it's going to be someone the Supreme Leader approves of that has been vetted by the system."

Indeed, the contest will likely come down to the religious traditionalists in Ayatollah Khamenei's camp — exactly the group that would take a harder line in nuclear negotiations — although they have yet to coalesce around a single candidate. The reformers who rose to prominence after the contested 2009 election are largely out of the picture.

Nader says that while reform candidates aren't in the race (two remain under house arrest while others refused to enter the contest), he believes that a less bombastic president in Tehran could be helpful in restarting the nuclear talks.

Patrick Clawson disagrees. "Ahmadinejad didn't have a particular role in the nuclear talks, nor did Khatami," he said. "So there is no reason to believe the next president will either."

Clawson also doesn't believe the ingredients are in place for the kind of popular unrest that occurred after Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory in 2009, when an estimated 3 million Iranians took to the streets to protest what they felt was a rigged election, but Nader thinks the possibility for unrest is high.

"The system is very unstable," he said. "There could very well be street demonstrations, rioting, strikes. Things could really blow up. Sanctions have the effect of raising pressure on the Iranian government because they are worried about popular unrest, so it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. It could actually be helpful."


About the Author

Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2013