Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 7 Nov 2014

The Mid-Term elections are over. The Republicans' successes seem to have exceeded even the more optimistic pre-poll estimates. So how might this impinge on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran?

Yesterday, Secretary Kerry, Lady Ashton and Javad Zarif met in Oman for two days of negotiations, with a further follow-up planned for later this month – in case these Oman talks bear fruit.  This ‘extra time’ on the original six month negotiations is set to run out on 24 November.

Although no one can foretell the final outcome to this process, it seems unlikely that there will be a substantive solution.  It is true that there has been progress on some technical issues, but on the core issues -- whether or not Iran will be accorded its rights to generate meaningful amounts of nuclear energy sufficient to meet its future industrial needs, or, alternatively, be limited to a fig leaf enrichment ‘pilot’ project; whether, and for how long (decades?), Iran may expect to be subjected to ‘probation’ and to a special regime beyond that of the NPT – and whether ‘agreement’ will result in any meaningful lifting of sanctions by the US -- the parties will arrive in Muscat far apart.  The other points, mostly technical, on which agreement has been reached – though quantitatively numerous – essentially are peripheral.

The Mid-Terms will have complicated these talks for both parties. For President Obama, the widely repeated mantra (not one that is espoused by Republicans alone) that somehow the deep crises of the Middle East and Ukraine are not a reflection of systemic change taking place in the world, but are simply down to Presidential ‘weakness’, will not make it any easier for Obama to be bold in striking a deal with Iran. Whatever the content of any prospective deal, we can expect President Obama to be accused of ‘appeasing’ Iran, and displaying ‘weakness’ again.  He may not wish to expend such political capital when faced with all the other (domestic) battles he will face - with a now resurgent Republican opposition in control of both Houses.

But more significantly, the pending expiry of the Iran talks – coinciding as it has, with the rise of ISIS and the need to counter it – has made the Oman outcome so much more significant. Many senior American commentators have begun to question the merits of America’s inherited structure of regional alliances, particularly in view of their involute ambiguity with respect to ISIS.  These commentators are suggesting a ‘re-set’ – something the President has long advocated (a re-balancing between Iran and Saudi Arabia).

But precisely because America’s ‘historic allies’ have their blood ‘up’, and are launched in a ‘war’ against all their diverse ‘enemies’: so it will be much harder for the US President to re-set America’s alliances. These historic allies have put down deep roots into the think-tanks and lobbies of America, and decades of habitual practice are not easily put aside.  But which way America finally tips – whether re-set, or no re-set - will be profoundly important for America’s future in the region (but ultimately may not be decisive in determining the course of events there).

On the Iranian side, President Rouhani too faces a more complicated situation: Foremost will be the question whether America now can be regarded as plenipotentiary (in light of the Mid-Terms). Can the Administration credibly commit to the lifting of sanctions now (or at some further future date)?  It is notable how often reference is made in the Iranian press to Wendy Sherman’s unqualified guarantee before a Senate committee that any agreement would be put to the Senate for prior approval. It is taken for granted in Iran that the Senate would oppose any significant lifting of sanctions on Iran. In a recent poll, conducted jointly by Tehran and Maryland Universities, three out of four Iranians said:

“that they are concerned that even if "Iran would fully accept and implement U.S. demands," the United States would continue current nuclear-related sanctions [but] "for some other reasons." Such concerns may be enhanced by proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress that says that in the event of a nuclear deal, sanctions could be maintained in response to what Congress describes as Iran's support for terrorist groups or domestic human rights violations.

These doubts appear to be constraining support for accepting certain positions in the negotiations. Those who believe that the United States will follow through and lift sanctions are much more likely to support Iran taking confidence building measures than those [the 75%] who believe the United States will find some other reason to keep them in place”.

More particularly, the Iranian President is accused (by domestic critics) of having hiked popular expectations of change in western attitudes and a lifting of sanctions at the outset of the talks, which have not been borne out in practice. The additional US sanctions imposed during the talks (and when Iran was observing all of its Interim Agreement commitments), has exacerbated this popular perception. This initial heady rise in expectations has been followed by a dip in expectations - and a lowering of mood.

Again, the Maryland poll underlines that the fact of holding the talks has not in any way diminished the widespread popular support for Iran’s ‘red lines’: 94% of Iranians say they support the nuclear programme (notwithstanding, and despite the fact, that 85% of respondents acknowledge sanctions to be hurting the economy).  And large majorities see as unacceptable P5+1 demands for Iran to dismantle about half of its centrifuges (70 %), or to limit its nuclear research activities (75 %).

In short, Rouhani is a politician; and like any politician, he must attend to his constituency.  His constituency is clear: It is ready to disavow weapons and to offer assured and safeguarded enrichment; but it expects, in return, a full lifting of sanctions.  The political mood now is souring.  The electors had imagined – with the advent of a President with whom the West could be comfortable – that such a deal, and the lifting of sanctions, might be in the offing (the President and the negotiators plainly have themselves contributed to this popular expectation).  But now the general expectation is that this will not be; and the resulting shift in sentiment is likely to have political consequences (in terms of the outcome of the next Majlis elections).

In short, Rouhani’s initial broad mandate is being eaten into by political constraints (he too needs to win his ‘mid-terms’ or find himself facing a parliament controlled by the opposition).  We can already see that the President is trying to open up clear blue water between himself and the Reformists. (This is not to suggest that he is cleaving more closely to the Principle-ists; but rather that the President is seeking to make his own autonomous niche -- no easy task).  He was slated in the Iranian press for his meeting with the British PM, who later made a rather ill-judged attack on Iran in his UNGA address. But it indicates the way the wind is blowing now.  Earlier such initiatives at outreach earned Rouhani praise: now, however, he is being told that his meeting with Cameron was a grave error in judgement.

So if the Iranian public is cooling to the Rouhani/Zarif charm offensive in the West, does this suggest that the P5+1 talks will end in breakdown? This is possible; but perhaps not very likely. We may not see a ‘big’ agreement, but perhaps a quite ‘limited’ one - albeit dressed-up in party clothes to present itself as something rather cheerful. By that, we mean that some of the (peripheral) technical accords will be fore-staged, and be accompanied by a limited, symbolic alleviation of sanctions.  But paradoxically, this very attenuated result might suit everyone.

Rouhani will be able to say he remained steadfast to Iran’s ‘red lines’; Obama will be able to that the ‘accord’ lays down the framework for a re-balancing in the region – and at the same time, (important for America) the Gulf and Israel will be satisfied that Iran remains heavily sanctioned.

Why might Rouhani do this? Firstly, because (as the Supreme Leader noted in a recent meeting with Iran’s leadership), the world is changing, and changing quite fast. Ayatollah Khamanei noted the slide in America’s standing, as well as the change taking place within the global order (both political, and in terms of the financial and trading systems).  The Supreme Leader was not specific, but it is probable that he had in mind the moves to establish a parallel financial and trading system outside of dollar-denominated trading structures.

But equally, as the Iranian leadership cast their eyes around them, the landscape is not displeasing: They perceive President Assad and his government to be secure; the Iranian relationship with Baghdad has never been stronger; they are (not unsurprisingly) satisfied by the turn of events in Yemen; the earlier suspicions and competitiveness which characterized Iranian relations with Russia is gone under the impact of their shared efforts in Syria and Iraq – and China is courting them.  (ISIS, for many Iranians, is more of a Sunni problem than a problem that is perceived to threaten Iran).

Of course, sanctions have hurt; but at the end of the day, it may be that they will never be rescinded (even were Iran to run up a white flag, which will not happen).  That simply is how things are. The Mid-Terms will reinforce the thought in Iran that this might be just so (Cuba sanctions are an example of how once imposed, they can never be lifted).

Interestingly too, there has been a notable shift in some of the leading Iranian newspapers close to the Principle-ists towards accepting the notion of a limited accord as being beneficial for Iran.  The answer is that Iran must find its workaround – and the western tensions with Russia paradoxically may be opening just such a door (the joint Chinese and Russian move towards a parallel trading and financial clearing system).

So a ‘limited accord’ might do. Iranians say that they do not see any evidence of the US wanting to escalate tensions between them, but rather the reverse – and if the US is not looking to escalate tensions, why should Iran do so.  Iran does not feel threatened, and even the sanctions seem likely to become less of a hurt in the future.  Maybe Iran, in this more positive outlook, can just wait events out.

This is not to suggest that – on the basis of some half agreement – all will be rosy between Iran and the US; or that Iran will enter into military co-operation openly with the US in Iraq or Syria against ISIS.  Iran will not.  And the Cameron episode plainly underlined the dangers (popular resentment) of being seen to be too chummy with the likes of Mr Cameron.  But quietly, below the parapet of public gaze, perhaps a few discreet understandings between Iran and the US will be reached. Indeed, this may already be underway. Just as the DoD might appreciate the potential ‘value added’ from quietly co-operating with the Syrian Army, so the DoD might welcome a few ‘deniable’ understandings with Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

Perhaps then, the ‘big’ agreement with the United States is somehow less important?  Perhaps it is not required of the US to formally re-balance the region – if the region is already, as it were, in the process of re-setting itself (re-balancing the power equation of itself), without the particular need for the US re-set?

(Apologies for the late posting of this piece).