by Henry Johnson
Ariane Tabatabai, a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University, nuclear non-proliferation expert, and occasional contributor to LobeLog, is very busy these days. But she agreed to speak with us about the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. She explained how the Rouhani administration earned widespread support from Iran’s parliament for the framework agreement. Tabatabai also argued that the Supreme Leader of Iran, a key supporter of the talks, has moved to the centrist camp of Iranian politics during the course of these negotiations. He has, she points out, accepted the possibility of broader engagement with the West and may deliberately be avoiding the arch-conservative policies that led, in part, to popular unrest following the disputed presidential elections in 2009. Finally, she gave a sober-minded assessment of the impact that sanctions relief could bring to bear on Iran’s regional policies.
How has the Iranian political establishment responded to this deal?
Very generally, the response has been positive in Iran. Shortly after the agreement was announced, the IRGC came out with the strongest, most resonating support so far for the process. Fairly high up, you have commanders saying, “Look, this is very good; congratulations to the Supreme Leader and children of the revolution.”
Immediately following the announcement of the framework agreement, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Iranian state TV defending and selling the deal. It was a two-and-a-half hour long Q&A where he was questioned about all the details of the agreement, everything from the sanctions, to the heavy water reactor, to Fordow, to the number of centrifuges. That was their version of the U.S. fact sheet. Following that, he went to Iran’s parliament, the majles. There was a lot of pressure on him there, because Iran had not put out its own document. Ultimately what happened was Ali Larijani, speaker of the majles, came out and supported it as well. The pushback about Iran’s lack of a fact sheet, and the perception of a dissonance, got to the point where the Iranians were debating whether to release their own fact sheet, which was then prepared by Salehi and the rest of the team. It was given to Zarif to release or not. They debated on it for a few days till they finally decided not to release.
Why did Minister Zarif decide against releasing the fact sheet?
There is a realization in Iran that the U.S. fact sheet was very helpful for the U.S. side in the U.S. but it was not very useful for the Iranians. And there was then a realization that if they put out the fact sheet it would maybe be helpful for them at home but that it would not help the negotiations more generally. So the [government] is saying look, “we’re giving you the details and we don’t need to put in a fact sheet that would be then dissected in the U.S.”
Many in the U.S. have construed rhetoric from Iran’s Supreme Leader or other powerful conservatives as evidence of outstanding gaps between the two sides, and see it as reason to apply more pressure. Are there substantive differences between what the two governments want?
Secretary Moniz put it the best way, which is, the facts are the same on both sides. A good example to illustrate his statement: when folks talk here, they highlight the fact that Iran is scaling back its enrichment program by x amount of centrifuges, or around two-thirds. When the Iranians talk about it, they say, “we’re keeping 6,100 centrifuges.” So they’re saying the same thing, just differently. They’re each going to highlight different elements of it for their own constituencies.
Ultimately the reaction in both countries has been very different, but that is to be expected, both from the political system and how bipolar domestic politics has become in the U.S.
Perhaps the thorniest issue ahead of the June 30 deadline comprises both the timing and strength of sanctions relief. The U.S. insists that Iran will receive sanctions relief by executive action only after it fulfills some major commitments and pushes its “breakout” time, the period in which it can most quickly produce a warhead, to one year. U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew recently clarified that the president will not “ask Congress to vote to terminate sanctions” until “after many years of compliance.” Do you think there is willingness in Iran to accept a gradual pace of sanctions relief?
There is a lot of confusion about this in Iran, but this is also due to the fact that there is a lot of confusion at the negotiations. I’m not sure a lot of this has been fully settled yet, which is why the U.S. fact sheet wasn’t very clear about the sanctions relief timing. What are the key steps? So if we’re taking the case of Arak for instance, would the US verify that Iran started the process, or that the core has been removed, that the core has been destroyed or shipped out of the country? Which part of this is considered the vital step for Iran to get sanctions relief? That is a really tricky and important part of this process. Would Iran be able to deal with some sort of phasing? I think ultimately it will have to. A lot of what they’re saying now is posturing. You can’t expect all sanctions to be terminated at the same time; it’s just not going to happen.
President Rouhani and his team at the Foreign Ministry owe much of their success to the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There are few if any historical parallels in which Ayatollah Khamenei took such a pivotal position on such an important decision of international affairs. What do you make of his backing for the Rouhani administration?
Obviously, this is an issue where most Iranians agree that the negotiations are a good thing. But also the pushback from hardliners has been pretty vocal as well. What is interesting is the Supreme Leader, who is considered to be conservative, is positioning himself as a moderate in this process. This makes this issue a bit different from previous instances where he has been more on the conservative side of things.
Something I’ve found to be problematic in the way people talk about the Supreme Leader’s role in the negotiations is that everybody is quick to say he’s a conservative, and therefore whatever he is doing on the nuclear issue is conservative. On a number of issues he is very conservative—human rights, women’s rights, and cultural things generally. But on this particular issue he has been fairly centrist. I want to illustrate the fact that even his general stance on the West may be changing a little bit. In a recent statement, there is one piece that many people didn’t even look at, but that is extremely important. He says for the first time, these negotiations, if successful, will be “an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them [the West] on other issues.” This is the first time in a very long time where he is saying very openly, very publicly, that we are open to further engagement. A lot of people are not covering it as much in town because it goes against everything they’ve been arguing for years and years. Yes, he is ideological, but he also can be pragmatic when needed.
What explains the change in tone?
I think 2009 had a lot to do with it, and that is another thing that people are quick to dismiss. Washington always talks about how sanctions brought Iran to the table, and, yes, sanctions did have a pretty big role. But there is this idea of domestic politics and 2009 imposing a big reality check—forcing him to realize that he could be put aside. That was the first time his position and legitimacy were really challenged.
How will sanctions relief possibly affect Iran’s regional strategy?
I don’t think the outcome of the negotiations will fundamentally change Iran’s position in the region. A lot of what is going on in the region right now will have the same strategic significance regardless of whether or not there is an agreement. So regardless of a deal, Iran will continue to perceive the Islamic State as a key threat to its territorial security. It’ll continue to be active in Iraq as long as the Islamic State is there, and it will continue to support the same groups to the same extent.
Now a deal might facilitate some sort of coordination with the U.S., but I still don’t see in the immediate future more than tactical cooperation. Likewise with Syria. The fact that now everyone is saying we have to deal with Assad is reinforcing the idea that Iran was right and that they’ve pursued the right strategy in Syria and they’re not going to change that regardless of what happens. And Iran has managed to insert itself in the decision-making over Syria regardless of what happens in the negotiations. Deal or no deal, Iran will be included. In terms of the GCC, that will be a more complicated issue. Again, if there’s a deal there might be some sort of further escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That friction will be driven by the fear that Iran and the U.S. will return to their pre-1979 relations as well as by events in Yemen. But I don’t think what is going on there will be subject to change due to the negotiations.
If there is indeed better relations with the U.S. and Europe, then that might play a role in changing Iran’s behavior in the region. It could affect its cooperation with Hezbollah, or other militant groups, but I doubt Iran will be emboldened to do things. What Iran does is what it perceives to be strategically viable and strategically important. I don’t think it does anything for the sake of doing things. Sometimes it pokes the U.S. in the eye, or Israel or Saudi, and it might be a bit emboldened to do that, but not in a drastically different manner.
Henry Johnson is a writer and analyst of Middle East affairs with a focus on Iranian foreign policy and politics.