The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, China, Russia and the U.S.) plus Germany continue to negotiate with Iran regarding its nuclear program. After Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran’s president in 2013, the negotiations picked up speed. Despite the opposition of Iran’s hardliners, the outward looking Rouhani promised to work on sanctions relief, to end Iran’s international isolation. The big gaps between the negotiating positions have yet to be resolved. No reliable inspections program can be implemented until Iran provides a full account of its current weapons program. So far, it has refused to do so, denying one exists. Some analysts rate the chance of reaching an agreement at only 40%.
Secretary of State Kerry is in Switzerland participating in the discussions. It has been speculated that the negotiators are actually close to reaching agreement. An announcement on a general agreement may come in the near future, the devilish technical details will remain to be worked out by June. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has toned down his criticism of the negotiation process, appearing to support the Iranian negotiators.
The revolutionary zeal that has sustained the Islamic Republic of Iran may be wearing a bit thin. A large part of the population has become disgruntled with the impact of sanctions, dropping oil prices and years of economic mismanagement. The high cost of supporting Iran’s regional ventures also weighs heavily on government coffers. Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Shiite factions in Yemen.
Iran, with a population of 80 million, is the world’s 18th largest economy. Oil accounts for 42% of government revenue. The country’s inflation rate, although reduced, is running at 17%. Although Iran is ruled by the ayatollahs, religious purity does not do extend to the economic sphere. The country is fairly corrupt, ranked a poor 136th out of 175 countries. The various revolutionary military forces supporting the clerical regime have over time developed many deep economic interests. Recently, sanctions busting has become a big business, making certain commanders and their associates rich.
Although Iran’s government is said to be reacting to growing internal pressures, there is strong opposition to any agreement with Iran. During his March 3 speech to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran defies inspectors, is good at hiding its nuclear weapons program and cheating. In short, Iran can’t be trusted. During his presentation, the prime minister did not mention that Israel has 60 years of expertise in clandestine nuclear weapons building. Today, it is estimated that Israel has about 200 nuclear weapons plus the aircraft and missiles needed to deliver them. Israel’s extensive nuclear weapons supply voids any consideration of turning the Middle East into a nuclear weapons free zone.
The deep fractures within the U.S. Government are also affecting the negotiations. The invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu was made without the normal practice of consulting the White House. Many Republicans in Congress seem believe President Obama is gullible, willing to make too many concessions to Iran. In what appears to be an attempt to derail the negotiations, 47 Republican senators sent a letter to Iran warning that Congress could modify any deal made by the administration. It is true that President Obama can grant a temporary waiver of sanctions, only Congress can permanently lift them.
The congressional skeptics believe Iran is bound to continue its quest for nuclear weapons and will refuse to accept any truly verifiable deal. If it agrees to a weak one, it will cheat. The critics think the ayatollahs ruling the country are driven solely by ideology. Iran’s goal is to export its Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East. Sanctions could succeed if tightened, causing the regime to fall. If not, airstrikes could destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Such an attack could cause the Iranian people to rally behind the regime or they could bring it down. Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions have made the world a more dangerous place.
The meddling by congressional Republicans in an ongoing negotiation with a foreign power could get the United States blamed for the failure if the deal with Iran can’t be finalized. The Republicans in Congress should at least consider the fact that Iran’s internal politics may be shifting. The negotiators from the Security Council members and Secretary Kerry’s team are not all stupid, some may actually know what they are doing. Congress should not ignore recent experience. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq survived sanctions for years. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Regime change doesn’t always work, the replacement can turn out to be worse. After 14 years of involvement in Afghanistan, we are still trying to get nation building right.