By Karl Reiner
On January 12, the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) and Iran reached agreement on a joint plan to freeze Iran’s nuclear program for six months. The next more difficult step will be to negotiate a long-term agreement. Given the differences remaining between the positions of the parties, many skeptics don’t think a final deal can be reached. Other analysts think the effort will
falter because Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is not willing to give up the option to acquire nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t like any of it. He sees the talks as a major blunder, an Iranian stall to gain extra time.
There is growing support in Congress for placing additional sanctions on Iran. There are serious doubts about what Iranian President Rouhani can actually deliver. Not everyone believes he has a real mandate for change. There is a suspicion that he is the friendly face sent to shield the stall tactics of Iran’s supreme leader. The move in the Senate to impose new sanctions does make President Obama look feeble. With Congress smugly failing to acknowledge the agreements that have been reached so far, President Obama is seen by Iran’s hardliners as not being in control of his foreign policy. In this tension filled environment, Iran’s policy of non-recognition and hostility toward Israel doesn’t help matters.
Ayatollah Khamenei did not permit the election of President Rouhani. The regime was facing a host of economic mismanagement problems plus the consequences of an erratic nuclear policy that brought on sanctions and isolation. Serious internal rifts made the government incapable of doing a repeat of the election swindle of 2009. In an unexpected turn of election results, the population quickly made clear its desire for change. Ayatollah Khamenei was stuck with accepting the expressed will of the people because Iran hypes itself as a place that abides by election results.
The hardliners in Tehran would be delighted to see President Hassan Rouhani unable to get an agreement and sanctions relief. Ayatollah Khamenei supports the effort by Rouhani because he has to, not because he agrees with it. If the talks succeed Khamenei will be able take credit for it. If they fail, the deeply mistrustful Khamenei will have proof that Iran has to resist rather than collaborate with the West. He can shove the country’s woolly-minded moderates and pragmatists back to the margins of Iranian politics. With the Rouhani effort a demonstrated failure, power will shift back to the hardliners with a vengeance.
If diplomacy fails and new sanctions are applied, it could eventually lead to military intervention in Iran. Iran’s distrustful supreme leader may already believe that war is a near certainty. If it comes after the failure of diplomacy, the Khamenei regime believes it will be in a better position to survive. If diplomacy succeeds, Iran will see many benefits in the short-term. Ayatollah Khamenei will then have to face a situation not to his liking, the new political environment brought about by Iran’s forces of moderation.
Iran strongly backs Bashar Assad’s government in Syria. The civil war in Syria has killed over 130,000, displaced millions, wrecked the economy and is destabilizing neighboring countries as Syrian refugees flood in. After being invited, Iran was disinvited from the Syrian peace conference in Switzerland that opened on January 22. Besides revealing a grievous lack of coordination, the withdrawing of Iran’s invitation did let suspicious people in Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh and Tehran know that the ongoing touchy nuclear discussions with Iran has not caused the U.S. to tilt toward the Iranians on other regional matters.
Secretary of State Kerry has 120 people working with the Israelis and Palestinians in an effort to develop an agreement on a two state solution to the long festering Palestinian issue. After six months of effort, they may be coming close to hammering out the terms of a framework agreement. Iranian supported Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas is not a party to the framework program and can be expected to object to any settlement.
The government of Iran wants the U.S to accept it as a political reality, give up the idea of regime change and assent to Iran’s rightful place as a regional power in the Persian Gulf. Because of the possibility for cooperation in certain areas, diplomacy may yet be able to work its magic. Iran needs U.S. support to bring an end to its international isolation. The U.S. would like to see Iran’s nuclear bomb issue peacefully resolved. A wide scope of regional concerns could benefit from Iranian support or benign neglect, the Syrian matter, Afghanistan and the possible peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Iran also has a great deal of influence with the shaky new government in Iraq. It is a good thing that Secretary Kerry’s diplomats are salaried, the attempt to sort out and resolve these challenging and intertwined issues would otherwise result in a lot of overtime pay.