The United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China (the P5+1) have been negotiating with Iran regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program for months. The talks are currently scheduled to conclude on November 24. Although the P5+1 negotiators say Iran has met the commitments it made under the interim agreement reached last year, a final deal on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity has not been reached. This factor is important because it controls the time it would take Iran to manufacture a bomb. Another sticking point in the negotiations is when the sanctions on Iran would be lifted.
The P5+1 negotiating objective is to limit Iran’s nuclear capability to a level that ensures it will take a year to complete work on a bomb. Iran’s nuclear endeavors would be closely monitored by inspectors. Violations would be picked up quickly, giving the outside world time to react. Since its nuclear ambitions were exposed in 2002, Iran has insisted that it wants civilian nuclear power, not a bomb. Despite the vigorous Iranian denials, intelligence information indicates otherwise. There is some support for the idea that the nuclear program is defensive in nature. Given the situation, none of the P5+1 countries want to wait to find out what Iran’s true intentions are.
In America, the Obama administration has to be sure an agreement will work. The offer under consideration includes reversible sanctions relief. The removal of sanctions would become permanent only when Iran has proved it has upheld its end of the bargain. There is substantial distrust of Iran’s intentions in the U.S. Congress and Israel. There are fears that Iran will abrogate the agreement when it has developed the technical competence to complete a rapid dash to a nuclear weapon.
If the negotiators can reach agreement, the Obama administration will have to coax a reluctant Congress into approving it. Although Congress gave the president the right to waive sanctions when it passed sanctions legislation in 2010 and 2011, Congress now appears to be reluctant to allow the president to unilaterally temporarily rollback the sanctions.
Iran’s negotiators also face a difficult task. In Tehran, they have to convince the leery hardliners and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that they have obtained a good deal for the country. The Iranian government will have to accept major limits on its nuclear program, allow inspectors to check facilities and be willing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency on compliance matters. Iran has to prove it is a trustworthy partner able to uphold its commitments or the sanctions come back into force.
In the murky world of Iranian decision making, it appears that number of the hardliners around the supreme leader want to push ahead with the nuclear program. They are willing to try to develop a resistance economy, one with no need for foreign commerce. They believe Iran can meet the basic needs of its people by developing local industries. The captivating concept of self-sufficiency has been part of conservative thinking in Iran for a long time. The dogmatic hardliners see isolation from the enticements offered by the outside world as a way to help preserve Iran’s ideological purity. Most outside analysts think they will be opting for international isolation and economic failure, preferring national destitution to nuclear controls.
Iran has changed in many ways since the 1979 revolution created the world’s first and only constitutional theocracy. As the euphoria accompanying the revolution slowly faded, the majority of the population has turned to more mundane personal and consumer pursuits. The international sanctions have severely depressed Iran’s economy. Until sanctions hit, life had been gradually improving.
Millions of educated Iranians resent being isolated from the rest of the world. The population’s desire for a less confrontational approach was reflected in Iran’s last election. It resulted in the government run by Hassan Rouhani, one that is staffed by many individuals with PhDs from American Universities. Although the hardline conservatives still hold a great deal of power, many government ministries are no longer managed by ardent revolutionary nationalists.
Iran is the world’s 18th largest economy. It has huge oil and gas reserves, substantial reserves of copper and iron. The country has a well-educated population of 80 million. Iran’s economy is the third-largest and most diversified in the Middle East. It has a large industrial base and a skilled workforce. Since the previous administration mismanaged much of the economy, along with sanctions relief, Iran needs economic reform. With the state currently involved in every aspect of the country’s economy, Rouhani wants to boost the small private sector.
Under the previous Ahmadinejad administration, Iran’s economy became inefficient and somewhat corrupt. Economic analysts point out that it was heading for trouble before sanctions were imposed. As much as 10% of the economy is controlled by business enterprises connected to the Revolutionary Guards, an organization that is part irregular military force and part intelligence agency. Iran’s internal security forces have diligently locked up citizens who go too far in challenging the regime.
Iran is mistrusted in much of the democratic world. In regional affairs, Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some of its leaders have denied the Holocaust ever happened. Given the population’s shifting mood and the Rouhani government’s pragmatic outlook, economic growth in a post-nuclear agreement Iran could be rapid. In a country sliding away from its revolutionary roots, Rouhani would get a big political boost from getting sanctions lifted. Although he is a regime insider, he is one of the few that thinks Iran needs to be integrated with the rest of the world. If he can get the nuclear deal approved by the country’s distrustful supreme leader, he could be on the way to making it happen.