The Real Challenge to Iranian Nuclear Talks
Diplomats at the November 2014 Iran nuclear talks.
Image Credit: U.S. Department of State

The Real Challenge to Iranian Nuclear Talks


Without question, Washington and Tehran have managed to move closer than ever before to a negotiated settlement of a decades-long crisis over the Iranian nuclear program. It remains to be seen, however, whether they have moved close enough to seal a comprehensive, long-term deal in the coming months. But there are growing signs that the two parties may have finally discovered the optimal point of convergence in their possible zones of compromise.

The nuclear negotiations have managed to move this far precisely because both sides’ “red lines” have been taken into consideration.  The Islamic Republic of Iran and the great powers, specifically the P5+1 (a grouping comprising the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia), are now primarily focused on hammering out remaining concerns over the duration of restrictions on and intrusive inspection of Iran’s nuclear program as well as the pace and breadth of rollback in sanctions against Iran. And this is where the negotiations have become a classic “two-level game,” where domestic political dynamics in both Tehran and Washington is as crucial as the substantive points of discussion among directly negotiating parties.

Assuming the negotiating parties manage to arrive at a final agreement before the July, 2014 deadline, the real challenge down the road is to sell the agreement to hardliners at home. Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech at the U.S. Congress — criticized by a majority of the American people (see CNN’s latest poll), and which, in the words of a veteran legislator, represented as “an insult to the intelligence of the U.S.” — was primarily aimed at the second level of negotiations, specifically the U.S. Congress, which has the sole power to permanently suspend all sanctions against Iran to make the deal work.

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The Great Convergence

Iran has long made its “red lines” more or less clear. Under no conditions will Iran agree to a complete dismantlement of its much-prized domestic enrichment capacity, which Iran treats as its “inalienable right.” Furthermore, any compromise on Tehran’s part should be reciprocated by the removal of all sanctions, particularly the unilateral punitive measures imposed by Washington and Brussels since late-2012. The Obama administration, in turn, has made it clear that it will settle for nothing less than a comprehensive, real-time, and verifiable inspection regime to ensure there is no diversion of fissile material for nuclear weapons-production, assuming Iran would choose to do so. More precisely, Washington is aiming for at least a one-year “breakout” time cushion.

Crucially, both American and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that despite mastering the fuel cycle, Iran hasn’t even made the decision to move in that direction. According to leaked documents, Israel’s Mossad recently concluded that Iran is “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.” So the Obama administration is simply playing it safe, ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is strictly maintained within peaceful parameters. President Obama is determined to show that diplomacy is the best way forward even if one can’t fully decipher another party’s intentions.

Among objective observers, as well as top intelligence and military officials in the West and Israel, there is more or less a consensus that Iran is a rational actor, driven by a largely predictable cost-benefit calculus. In fact, as some astute Iran experts suggest, it would be irrational for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

A Game-Changer

Dashing for the bomb would most likely invite a devastating confrontation with the West, not to mention isolate Iran even among fellow developing countries which have opposed nuclear proliferation. Moreover, it will provide a perfect excuse for Iran’s regional rivals and neighbors to develop their own nuclear deterrents, which will, in effect, neutralize Iran’s conventional military superiority over (most of) its neighbors. In addition, Iran’s clerical leadership has unequivocally issued a fatwa (religious edict) against nuclear weapons.

So why are Iran’s regional rivals panicking at the prospect of an Iranian nuclear deal?

In “A Single Roll of the Dice,” Trita Parsi persuasively shows how “balance of power” considerations have largely shaped Israel’s strategic predisposition towards Iran, both before and, most especially, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The late Kenneth Waltz, among the most prominent scholars of international relations, echoed a similar argument in his Foreign Affairs piece.

Much has been said about how some Iranian hardliners are suspicious of any rapprochement with the U.S. based on ideological reasons. What needs to be discussed more is how Iran’s regional rivals are extremely anxious about the possibility that a comprehensive nuclear deal will gradually pave the way for a broader “grand bargain,” albeit informally, between Tehran and Washington, especially as the two powers jointly oppose the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and move toward a “neither foes, nor friends” state of affairs across the Middle East.

A post-sanctions Iran would not only become an economic powerhouse, but also a formidable regional force with growing strategic room for maneuverability. The fear that the nuclear negations could eventually break the wall of distrust between Tehran and Washington is arguably the chief motivation for opponents of the emerging deal. This is why the Rouhani and Obama administrations are set to face the Herculean task of overcoming determined opponents at home.  All politics, after all, islocal.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives. He has authored more than 400 articles and policy papers on Asian geopolitical affairs, writing for or interviewed by Foreign Affairs, BBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The National Interest, The Nation, and NPR among others. He is the author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of Middle East Uprisings”.

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