News : Middle East

Iran, US Strategies Following Republic Congressional Victories

By INU staff

INU- On Tuesday, American voters went to the polls and gave control of both houses of Congress to the Republican Party, dividing the government between this legislative branch and the Democratic presidency. Foreign policy was barely an issue during this election cycle, but the Republican Party is largely at odds with the Obama administration over topics like Iran and the negotiations over its nuclear program.

The greater share of power soon to be enjoyed by Republican legislators will surely signify, if not a change in US policy toward Iran, at least a change in the tactics that the Obama administration is able to utilize in pursuit of his own policy goals. This change of governance was anticipated by political commentators who projected that it would make Obama’s pro-rapprochement initiatives much more difficult to implement if the negotiating period is further extended beyond its current November 24 deadline.

One might suppose that the knowledge of this growing difficulty would lead to a change in strategy from the Iranian side as well. Iranian officials reportedly follow American politics closely and are well aware of what the Republican sweep means for Iran. Indeed, some new outlets have reported that Iran is nervous about the prospects of this Republican takeover. 

Reuters reports that a “compromise” may have recently been reached between hardliners and pragmatists led by Hassan Rouhani. But this compromise entails the expectation that Iran will reach a deal on its nuclear program but will not in any way normalize relations with the West. Any such rapprochement is now identified as a red line, which places it alongside existing red lines governing the pursuit of a nuclear deal. Iran still refuses to compromise on its enrichment capacity, the amount of access it grants to inspectors, and other key issues, and the latest reports now indicate that it categorically rejects more subtle changes in foreign relations that might otherwise have gained the trust of the West.

Nevertheless, many Iranian officials are on record as believing that they can still obtain a one-sided deal. The Washington Free Beacon reports that some Iranian officials expect that the Obama administration will fully and unilaterally lift economic sanctions before the Republican takeover, and after signing a deal that allows Iran to maintain its enrichment activities.

Even critics of the Obama administration recognize that such a dramatic move is unlikely, though they fear that the Democratic president will indeed sign an unfavorable deal and commit to some limited sanctions relief without Congressional approval. But it is arguably understandable that some Iranian officials have developed such a high degree of confidence, especially in light of the report by Voice of America News that indicates that US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have now officially agreed to one of the points upon which Iran has insisted: that it has a right to enrich nuclear material.

Kerry and Fabius, however, made this apparent concession on the understanding that Iran must prove that that enrichment is for peaceful purposes only, and that it would be very easy to do so if the Islamic Republic was committed to resolving the issue. But so far it has not demonstrated any such willingness, and as The Tower points out in its re-post of ten essential facts about the Iranian nuclear program, Iran still refuses to cooperate with inspectors, probably has secret nuclear sites, and has repeatedly rejected or broken agreements on the issue in the past.

Further contributing to the Iranian perception that the Obama administration is willing to make dramatic concessions to secure a deal in spite of this week’s Republican victories, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that President Obama wrote a secret letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, offering to link cooperation over the conflict with Islamic State militants to the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The report also indicated that other secret communications were passed from the White House to Tehran, some of which provided reassurances that US military operations against the Islamic State were no threat to Iran.

According to Reuters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest had no comment on the news of this letter, and merely reiterated former statements that the US would not coordinate militarily with Iran in the Islamic State fight. He also declared that overall US policy toward Iran was “unchanged.” But such remarks leave a question as to what that policy is and since exactly when it has been unchanged.

There is some indication that that policy has involved pursuit of close cooperation for some time. This is indicated in part by a Fox News report on Thursday that pointed out that a Pentagon task force had previously made an active push to establish business relations with Iran in order to help jump start the Afghan economy. Although the efforts came to naught, Fox says that the effort to partner with a country that was still strongly anti-Western showed the US’s “desperation.”

The appearance of this desperation has presumably helped to shape Iran’s policy in nuclear negotiations and in its broader relations with the West. But it has also presumably led many Iranian officials to overestimate their own leverage and the prospects for a one-sided deal. Despite President Obama’s personal outreach and contribution to soft US policies, he purportedly does not share Iran’s confidence that a deal will be secured before Republicans take power in Congress. CBS reports that Obama broke from traditional optimism about the process, saying that he was not sure whether a deal could be reached. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Kerry rejected the notion that the goalposts will significantly move for that deal after the Republican takeover, saying that there are fundamental disagreements with Iran that would still be present regardless of the part in charge.

As Regional Power Grows, so does Iran’s Hardline Policy

One thing that may change, however, in light of greater Republican power in the US government, is the extent of the challenge to Iranian power in the broader Middle East region. But Al Jazeera indicates that presently Iran is positioning itself to take advantage of the diminished American presence in the event that it either leaves victorious or quits the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Al Jazeera says that much of the Iranian leadership is confident in its ability to reclaim a regional leadership role in absence of a strong Western challenge, thanks to its own military might and its political ties to Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. To this could be added the increasing cooperation between Iran and Russia and China, which has recently given China the prospect of a naval foothold in the Persian Gulf, which could further challenge the American naval presence on Iran’s behalf.

This grasp for regional power coincides with an apparent conservative resurgence inside of Iran. This has been characterized, among other things, by parliamentary efforts to give greater power to civilian militias tasked with enforcing Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic law. The Times of India states that this issue and the issue of women’s rights and veiling provide hardliners with fuel to push back against the more pragmatic efforts of President Hassan Rouhani to endear the Islamic Republic to Western powers.

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