Third, the tumultuous state of Iranian politics will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran’s negotiators to strike a deal with the United States. Ahmadinejad is engaged in a tug-of-war with conservatives in Iran’s parliament, led by Ali Larijani, and in other key power centres, including with the powerful Mayor of Tehran Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf (they’re said to be trying to construct a coalition that could, with Khamenei’s acquiescence, impeach Ahmadinejad).
The struggle is made all the more intense because Ahmadinejad is in the process of ending a vast system of government subsidies for basic commodities such as fuel and food, and the security establishment in Iran—including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—is bracing for unrest. The leadership is also worried that the Green Movement, led by former candidates for president Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, could revive itself by leading a protest over both Iran’s economic troubles and what Mousavi has called Ahmadinejad’s ‘adventurous foreign policy.’ Although Iran’s internal battles have little to do with its nuclear programme, instead revolving around political and economic power sharing and control, the nuclear programme has become a political football that competing factions can use against each other.
Still, the fact that Iran and the United States are talking again is a good sign, as is fact that the next round will be held in Istanbul (Iran had originally proposed to hold the talks there, viewing the conservative, Islamist government of Turkey as a potential ally). And here and there are also reports that both the United States and the Europeans are trying to sweeten the deal to induce Iran to go along. For example, Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, reported in mid-December that ‘the European Union is proposing that Iran be allowed to continue its uranium enrichment processes if it agrees to tight United Nations supervision of its nuclear programme,’ paralleling the reports of a US offer along similar lines.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, there are even cracks appearing among Washington-based hardliners. After the Haaretz story appeared, I asked the chief of staff to Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and the prime mover of anti-Iran sanctions legislation in the House of Representatives, about a possible deal with Iran. Surprisingly, he said that one key question that ought to be raised is: ‘Could we live with some sort of arrangement where enrichment does happen on Iranian soil?’
That, indeed, is the question. Though it may not be answered when the two sides meet again this month, it’s the only possible positive outcome. The ongoing troubles afflicting Iran’s enrichment programme have eased the urgency, at least a little, with at least one senior Israeli official, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon, who said Israel now believes that Iran can’t build a nuclear weapon before 2014.
But even so, the clock is ticking.