By Karl Reiner
Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany reached a preliminary agreement on November 23 in Geneva. Iran will curb its nuclear program for six months in exchange for the dropping of some sanctions. Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif have worked to put things on a new course, attempting to end 34 years of mutual hostility. Events have been helped along by Iran’s President Rouhani, a regime insider experienced in security and diplomacy. A pragmatic conservative, he considers engagement important to the survival of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani has gained the support of the reformists who want to break Iran’s isolation. With the people in charge in Washington and Tehran interested in moving forward, the talks have a chance of succeeding.
It will not be easy because Iran is an Islamic theocracy, dominated by clerics who watch over the functions of the state. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, does not necessarily agree with the reformists, but has been forced by sanctions to negotiate. Ayatollah Khamenei comes from the hardline right, all aspects of the country’s ideological and political life ultimately come under his control. Rouhani, a trusted member of his inner circle, has his backing. Because Khamenei supports the negotiation effort, the response from the Revolutionary Guards and other hardline groups has been muted. The official line being coordinated by the supreme leader’s office says that sanctions didn’t force the talks. Iran has seen signs that the U.S. is changing its hostile policies and Iran is responding.
During the time Shah’s SAVAK (secret police) operated from 1957-79, it was the most hated and feared institution in the country. Although SAVAK was denounced by the revolutionaries, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran replaced it with the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MINS). It is charged with eliminating political dissent within Iran’s borders and conducting foreign intelligence operations. The ministry organizes attacks and assassinations in foreign countries. At home, it has a knack for making undesirable writers, activists and intellectuals disappear and for getting newspapers to withdraw articles. The ministry has approximately 30,000 personnel assigned to it. With a secret budget, MINS appears to be the most powerful and best funded of Iran’s ministries. Its head is always a cleric, the organization reports directly to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Iran’s revolutionary fervor may have cooled somewhat due to the long war with Iraq, mismanagement of the economy and international isolation. The 2009 election was rife with fraud, negating the social and economic expectations of much of the population. With the economy in trouble, Iran’s leaders know many of its people are unhappy with the quality of governance. In a country about the size of Alaska with a $1 trillion GDP, the economy has slipped into negative growth. Oil production which accounts for 80% of exports, is being debilitated by sanctions. Iran’s 151 billion barrels of oil reserves (the world’s 4th largest) have become a limited value asset.
Iran’s hardliners have used the U.S. as a propaganda demon for 34 years, they may now have to change the message. With sanctions crimping the economy, President Rouhani (in office since August 2013) has urged a more flexible course. If the ongoing talks provide the sanctions relief Khamenei needs, he could become more flexible. Khamenei wants to ensure the survival of the regime and end the nuclear predicament. Khamenei knows if diplomacy fails, a military confrontation is very likely. Under the circumstances, he is willing to try to work something out.
After denying access for two years, Iran has invited UN inspectors to visit the heavy water facility at Arak. The facility is suspected of being able to produce enough plutonium for two nuclear warheads per year. Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, the production of electricity, scientific and medical research. Despite Iran’s protestations, the U.S. has knowledge of Iran’s nuclear warhead designs. Iran’s jittery leaders may see nuclear weapons as a defensive deterrent, but the effect on regional stability is also an issue.
Iran has the lowest military budget in the Gulf region. With 545,000 in its military forces, the regime can also count on its 12.6 million paramilitary volunteers, three million of which are combat qualified. Iran’s missile development program can support a nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s leaders have stated that their only permanent enemy is Israel. This infuriates Benjamin Netanyahu, a combat veteran and Israel’s prime minister. He is adamantly opposed to the talks with Iran. Netanyahu also heads a government that developed its own clandestine nuclear weapons program. A familiarity with how it gets done may be adding to his concerns.
When President G.W. Bush made Iran part of the axis of evil, bad relations got worse. When President Obama tried to reverse things in 2009, he was rebuffed by Iran. In the region, Iran is active in Syria, supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Syrian refugees are flooding into neighboring countries, Iraq is sliding deeper into sectarian conflict. In this unstable arena, Iran has been defined by the harsh approach of its hardliners. The more open approach of Rouhani may prove that moderation can pay dividends. If a comprehensive deal can be reached, it will provide sanctions relief, circumscribe nuclear weapons development and give Iran’s regime the sense of dignity it craves.
Consequences in Iran might include the release of political prisoners if the regime feels less threatened. The reformists could gain ground in the future, stimulating a push toward civil society and political reform. A less hardline Iran could be of help in Afghanistan and Syria because Al-Qaeda and its related Sunni extremists hate the Shiites as much as they do the U.S. An improvement in U.S.-Iran relations could help moderate Iran’s position on Israel.
The skeptics who see the current talks as clever Iranian ploy to play for time until they get the bomb may be overly discounting the internal pressure on the Iranian government. Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, the Rutgers professor who was a candidate for president of Iran, is optimistic. He thinks the deal made in Geneva represents a major step forward. It offers an opportunity for rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. Dr. Amirahmadi is raising funds to support his “Mapping the U.S.-Iran Peace” project. He hopes to convince Iran’s hardliners, foreign and U.S. doubters that the current approach is the way to go.