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Array of Spoilers Could Derail Iran Nuclear Talks

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On-and-off negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have dragged on for more than a decade, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that a deal could be reached prior to the Nov. 24 deadline.

Iran has a reform-minded president in Hassan Rouhani and, more importantly, many Iran experts believe that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may be prepared to accept a deal. Analysts also believe that America’s negotiating partners — China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany — referred to as the P5+1, are keen for a deal that would scale back Iran’s nuclear program and impose inspections in exchange for lifting some sanctions. And President Obama has more freedom to pursue a deal, knowing that he doesn’t have to stand for re-election and can sign off on an agreement after the mid-term elections on Nov. 4. Given the litany of foreign policy crises crowding his inbox, Obama may be in search of a legacy-burnishing solution to one of the region’s most vexing problems before his term ends.

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Photo: State Department
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, embraces European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva after the P5+1 and Iran concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on Nov. 24, 2013. Whether it will be all smiles for this year's Nov. 24 deadline, however, remains to be seen.

Public opinion surveys also indicate that a solid majority of Americans and Iranians want a deal. A study conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM) in July revealed that 61 percent of Americans favor making a deal with Iran that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions, while only 35 percent favor breaking off the current negotiations and tightening sanctions. (Other surveys in 2013 had similar results.) And a survey conducted by CISSM and the University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion Research in September concluded that 79 percent of Iranians are open to an agreement in which Iran pledges to never produce nuclear weapons.

But support for a comprehensive deal is far from unanimous. Members of Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, other Gulf states are deeply skeptical of Iran’s intentions and fear that the P5+1 might make a bad deal that provides sanctions relief without completely wiping out the country’s nuclear program, giving it breakout capability to create a nuclear weapon. And there are still plenty of hardliners in Iran who don’t trust the West and doubt that the U.S. will hold up its end of the bargain in removing sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. In fact, that same CISSM-University of Tehran study found that a large majority of Iranians were concerned that even if “Iran would fully accept and implement U.S. demands,” the United States would continue current nuclear-related sanctions “for some other reasons.”

To be sure, there are wide gulfs in the negotiating positions that in and of themselves could torpedo the talks (which could also simply be extended again). Iran envisions having tens of thousands of centrifuges spinning, while the West wants to significantly roll back its nuclear enrichment capability, to a few thousand or even a few hundred advanced centrifuges (a number Israel would rather see cut down to zero). Iran would like immediate relief from sanctions that have choked its oil exports; the West prefers a slower, phased approach contingent on Iran fulfilling key parts of the bargain. Even the duration of any deal — five years versus 20 or more — is in contention. Outside issues could also interfere; already Tehran has suggested linking its support for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with the nuclear talks.

But even if the two sides manage to bridge these differences, that may not be enough to win over skeptics. What are the motivations of these skeptics and are they influential enough to play the role of spoiler, effectively killing a deal before it’s reached?

Congress

Distrust of Iran has long been a rare issue of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill. Most lawmakers are deeply skeptical of Iran’s intentions thanks in part to a long history of bad blood, dating back to 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days — not to mention Iran’s present-day support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, its less-than-transparent track record on the nuclear issue and widespread support for Israel in Congress.

Days before a self-imposed July 20 deadline that was eventually pushed back to Nov. 24, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member, released a letter, signed by 342 members of the House, asserting that Iran needed to satisfy a host of congressional demands on human rights, terrorism and other issues unrelated to the talks before it would approve sanctions relief — demands that many observers say were unrealistic and designed to block progress on the nuclear front.

On the Senate side, Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other senators have consistently pushed to tighten the sanctions noose, on the theory that tougher penalties will force Iran to compromise. Votes on strengthening sanctions against Iran in both chambers have been nearly unanimous despite calls from the administration to give diplomacy more time.

Obama could provide some sanctions relief via executive orders, and the White House has reportedly floated the idea of “suspending” stringent sanctions as a way to bypass a congressional vote, possibly for years, according to the New York Times.

Nevertheless, Congress is instrumental in permanently dismantling the sanctions regime that has taken eight years to construct. Jim Lobe, the Washington bureau chief of Inter Press Service, wrote in July that the letter by Royce and Engel served to “sow doubts about Obama’s ability to deliver among Iran’s leadership, thus strengthening hard-liners in Tehran who argue that Washington simply cannot be trusted.”

Patrick Clawson, the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), said there is always an institutional tension between Congress and the White House regarding sensitive foreign policy negotiations.

“You’ll hear a lot of bitching and screaming that we could have done better from Congress but I’m not sure they can do much about it,” he said.

Clawson’s WINEP colleagues have argued that no deal is better than a bad deal with Iran, and that the only way to get Tehran to listen is to threaten more sanctions or military action. “Iran is more likely to accept and adhere to a stringent nuclear accord if it perceives that the United States is willing to hold out at the negotiating table and is not looking for a quick exit from the region, and any adverse regional consequences of an agreement may be less if it is perceived to reflect American resolve rather than diffidence,” WINEP senior fellow Michael Singh argued in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July. 

But Farideh Farhi, an Iranian-born faculty member at the University of Hawaii who has taught comparative politics in both the United States and Iran, said that many members of Congress want the talks to fail.

“Members of the U.S. Congress have shown themselves to be more sensitive to the concerns and demands of allied states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia than the broader and more long-term U.S. interests in the region,” she said.

Alireza Nader, a native of Iran who is a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, said that support for Israel is only one reason why Congress is so dubious of Iran’s intentions.

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Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva Photo by Eric Bridiers
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman leads the U.S. delegation to the P5+1 talks on Iran at the U.N. offices in Geneva on Nov. 5, 2013.

“U.S. ties with Israel have an impact but it’s not just about Israel,” he said. “This goes back to the Iranian Revolution, the hostage crisis, Iran’s support for terrorist groups. Both sides have a lot of grievances against each other, a lot of bad blood.

Few would dispute that there is bad blood between the U.S. and Iran, but it’s also clear that there are few better ways for politicians to burnish their pro-Israel credentials than to appear tough on Iran. Lobe recently noted that Rep. Royce has “raised more money from pro-Israel” PACs associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) than any other candidate in the current election cycle, while Engel, Menendez and other lawmakers have also benefited from the largesse of powerful pro-Israel lobby groups.

Israel and the Gulf States

Israel has long been the world’s most prominent Iran nuclear talks skeptic and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been blunt in expressing that distrust, framing Iran as an existential threat to his own (presumably nuclear-armed) country. In an address to AIPAC in March, he mentioned Iran 49 times, saying at one point, “Unfortunately, the leading powers of the world are talking about leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium.” He called the move a “grave mistake.”

At an International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference in September, Netanyahu said that as soon as the world’s attention was consumed by an international crisis, Iran would “kick out the inspectors” and “within weeks, a few months, they have nuclear weapons. That’s a bad deal. And if Iran has nuclear weapons … you will see things you never imagined could be possible, horrors that you couldn’t even contemplate, come to fruition. The ultimate terror: A terrorist regime with the weapons of the greatest terror of them all. We must not let that happen.”

And he didn’t dance around his administration’s distrust for Iran during his address to the U.N. General Assembly just weeks later. “Don’t be fooled by Iran’s manipulative charm offensive,” he said. “It’s designed to lift sanctions and remove obstacles on Iran’s path to the bomb…. To defeat ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power would be to win the battle and lose the war.”

Yet Netanyahu has been warning that Iran was just weeks or months away from a nuclear bomb for years now, and his recent declarations lumping Iran, Hamas and the Islamic State together have glossed over the fundamental differences between these groups. 

Nader pointed out that besides saying that the whole nuclear program should be unequivocally dismantled, the Netanyahu government has never clarified what its negotiating red line is.

“Israelis worry that if sanctions are lifted, Iran’s economy might improve and its military capabilities will improve, but their policies won’t change,” he said. “The fear is that any deal could empower Iran.”

Clawson asserted that Israel rightfully wants to see steps to curb Iran’s nuclear program, but he also acknowledged that it was “very unlikely” to get what it wants in any deal. Farhi maintains that all of the talks skeptics are more concerned about the potential for an agreement transforming the hostile relationship between the United States and Iran than the nuclear program itself.

“In the case of someone like Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is also the added element of fear that an agreement, effectively normalizing Iran’s relationship with the world, will then make Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians the subject of further attention and pressure for change,” she said.

Saudi Arabia, the Sunni heavyweight that views Shiite Iran as a geopolitical rival in the region, and other Gulf states are reportedly just as concerned about what they perceive as a “bad deal” with Iran as Israel is, even if they have been less vocal in articulating those concerns. Nader said the Saudis and the Israelis fear that a nuclear deal could lead to greater U.S.-Iran cooperation on issues like Syria, sidelining their influence in the region.

“There’s also concern among the Saudis that the nuclear talks could be the beginning of some sort of secret arrangement between Tehran and Washington,” he said.

Nader added that of the Gulf states, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates are the most fearful of what impact U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would have on the region, while Bahrain, Oman and Qatar have some concerns but also better relations with Iran. Clawson believes the Gulf states fear that a nuclear Iran could destabilize the region.

Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, said in a recent interview with the Real News Network that the Saudi position on the talks was “more hawkish, actually, than the Israeli one, in the sense that there are certain elements … of the deal that the Israelis deep inside would be happy with.”

He added: “From the Saudi perspective, I fear that actually there is no deal that they would be happy with, because what they’re afraid of is not a nuclear Iran or an Iran with a limited enrichment capacity. What they’re afraid of is an Iran that actually manages to get along better with the United States. That’s the biggest threat to them.”

Hardliners in Iran

Even if President Rouhani has broad public support to pursue a deal, there are plenty of hardliners in Iran waiting to pounce if the negotiations or the deal itself go south. In a recent op-ed for CNN, Daniel Brumberg, a special adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, argued that the stakes in the negotiations go far beyond Iran’s nuclear program.

“[T]he focus on mechanics risks missing a bigger and arguably more important reality: that the negotiations are central to the future of Iran’s political system,” he argued. “If the United States is serious … about encouraging a political dynamic that strengthens reform-minded Iranian leaders and fosters a more cooperative Iranian foreign policy abroad, then Washington should make every reasonable effort to seal a comprehensive nuclear deal and secure Congress’ support for it. The alternative — insisting on imposing onerous terms that would virtually assure Iran’s quitting the negotiations — would simply bolster Iran’s hard-liners, while making it far easier for Tehran to pursue a nuclear program largely free of international supervision.”

Nader said that no agreement would satisfy Iran’s ultra hardliners because they fear the reforms that Rouhani has in mind for the Islamic Republic. But he believes that even the conservative elites understand the importance of easing sanctions.

“Even the conservatives are tied into the economy and a lot of them have become wealthy under Khamenei, so they see the stakes as well,” he said. “I don’t think the establishment in Iran wants the talks to fail but they want a deal which eases sanctions and allows them to keep as much as possible of their [nuclear] infrastructure.”

Nearly everyone agrees that Ayatollah Khamenei will have to approve any deal but no one knows exactly what his red lines are. Can he, or for that matter any of the skeptics, play the role of spoiler and scuttle the talks? Most analysts don’t think that external actors — Israel, the Gulf states or the U.S. Congress — could derail the negotiations, but they can certainly exert influence. Khamenei, on the other hand, has the power to singlehandedly veto a deal, though he undoubtedly understands that if he does, there will be economic consequences, domestic political fallout and even the threat of military action against Iran. (Already both sides seem to be positioning themselves as the flexible party to avoid blame if the talks collapse.)

Farhi said that hardliners in the U.S. and Iran “add to the inflexibility that both sides bring to the table. The Iranian negotiators cannot be seen as agreeing to the dismantling of Iran’s existing enrichment program while the American negotiators cannot be seen as allowing the same program to remain intact.”

Can the negotiating parties find a sweet spot that both sides can live with? The answer to that question will unfold in the coming weeks.


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 10, 2014