When representatives from Iran and the P5+1 group of nations reconvene, it will be to discuss the technical details of the final agreement, and also likely to pin down issues that remain outstanding in light of the release of contradictory fact sheets on the content of the framework deal. The veracity of that agreement has come into question in the days since the last round of talks concluded. Whereas the US declared that it had stayed true to its insistence that economic sanctions against Iran will be revealed only after Iranian compliance has been demonstrated, Tehran has declared victory for its demand that all sanctions will cease immediately on day one.
Other central points of the deal also remain contentions, and this could spell trouble for the prospect of a final deal. What’s more, Zee News describes the issues not covered at all by the framework agreement as some of the toughest issues standing in the way of a mutual resolution. It is still unknown whether Iran will be required to come clean on the past military dimensions of its nuclear work, how much research and development it will be allowed to carry on with, and how exactly the economic sanctions will be lifted.
Western insistence or Iranian intransigence on any of these points could still reverse the acceptance of the framework agreement that has been signaled by the Iranian and US governments. A Reuters blog post on Monday reported that most of Iran’s Friday prayer leaders have followed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s lead in expressing tentative support for the deal, citing the Shiite Islamic concept of “heroic flexibility.”
But the same article looked closely at Khamanei’s endorsement of this concept and found that it is strictly limited, and could easily be reversed with respect to the current situation if Khamenei no longer feels that the terms of the deal are favorable to Iran’s revolutionary ideology.
“Since Khamenei became supreme leader, however, he has consolidated power,” the article explained. “In some ways, his influence now exceeds that of [Islamic Republic founder Ruhollah] Khomeini. As negotiators begin work toward a final agreement over Iran’s nuclear program by the end of June, it’s important to remember that Khamenei could still refuse to sign a final deal. And he would find ample theological justification.”
In fact, read in the context of former comments about the inability of Western powers to impose terms on the Islamic Republic, the ayatollahs’ current favoring of the nuclear agreement may even signal that they feel they are winning. If this is the case, their attitude may not last for very long, as the deal faces much scrutiny in the West that will almost certainly prevent its final form from resembling what the Iranian fact sheet has outlined.
For one thing, the full removal of all Western sanctions at once is all but impossible, even if the Western negotiators involved in the talks want to provide such a concession. Reuters pointed to one complicating factor in an article on Monday, namely the autonomy of the individual states in the American union. As the news agency reports, about half of the 50 states have their own form of sanctions on Iran, consisting of laws ordering the divestment of pension funds and other investments from companies that do business with Iran.
Reuters adds that about half of these state-level sanctions only expire if all federal sanctions are lifted – not only sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear program but also separate sanctions dealing with Tehran’s support for international terrorism and its record of human rights abuses. If the Obama administration stays true to its promise to deal with the various Iranian issues separately, these other sanctions will remain untouched under the terms of any deal.
Not all federal or state-level US politicians trust that administration to keep up pressure on Iran in the midst of the current negotiations. And this is presumably part of the motivation behind moves by officials in at least two states – Kansas and Mississippi – to institute new divestment laws that would evoke a more hardline approach to dealing with Iran’s nuclear behavior and general adversarial nature.
This apparent skepticism about the administration’s Iran strategy is certainly reflected in the US Congress, to which Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to sell the emerging deal. Both political parties are supporting a bill that would require the Iran nuclear deal to receive congressional approval before going into effect, although another Reuters report indicated that Democrats and Republicans are pushing to modify the bill in opposite ways. Whereas Democrats are striving to give the president a bit more leeway to conclude a deal that Congress can live with, Republicans are generally championing strict oversights and a requirement that Iran no longer show support for anti-American terror groups.
President Obama understands full well that the hardline Republican demands would likely destroy any chance of completing the agreement along its current lines. That is to say that the Republican proposals count on the nature of the Iranian regime changing, and this is something that Obama has insisted is unrealistic and misses the point of trying to constrain the regime’s nuclear capabilities.
But in an editorial in the Washington Post on Monday, Jackson Diehl disputed this narrative from the Obama administration, saying that in reality the president is pinning his hopes on the prospect of the regime moderating in the aftermath of the deal. If it does not, Diehl pointed out, a future president will simply return to the same policies that Obama has worked so hard to change, especially after Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon shrinks to nearly zero – an outcome the president himself predicted for approximately ten years after the deal goes into effect.
Diehl went on to say that such change in the Iranian regime is extremely unlikely, as should be clear from previous instances of the West expecting moderation from Tehran only to later discover that they had underestimated the power of the hardline forces inside Iran. Diehl expects this history to repeat itself and even speculates that if Khamenei maintains his tacit approval for the emerging nuclear deal, he will probably compensate with more hardline policies in other areas to prove that negotiating with the West hasn’t affected Iran’s revolutionary ideology.
There are arguably already signs of this. Throughout the nuclear negotiations, high-ranking Iranian officials have continued to express belligerent rhetoric toward the US and its allies while also repeatedly claiming to have developed more advanced weapons systems and conducting headline-grabbing military maneuvers. Now with the nuclear deal possibly near its conclusion, Tehran is trying to take advantage of the situation to further boost its military capabilities.
The Times of Israel reported on Monday that Secretary of State Kerry had called his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to urge Moscow not to follow through on delivery of an advanced missile system to Iran. The delivery would be the fulfilment of an agreement that was stifled by Western outcry in the midst of previous efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear work. Recently, Lavrov has specifically cited this month’s framework agreement as overriding the 2010 ban on shipment of missiles to Iran.
The government of Israel is of course concerned that such weapons systems could end up in the hands of any number of anti-Israeli terrorist groups that are supported by Iran. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz used Russia’s move as an opportunity to argue that the framework agreement gives undue legitimacy to the Iranian regime and to its entrenched militarism.
If, as critics suspect, Iran is unwilling to or incapable of reforming that ideologically grounded militarism, it can be expected to have consequences for global security and also for Iran’s domestic population. This latter point was highlighted on Monday in an article in IranWire, which described the ways in which Iran’s compulsory military service is used by the regime for such purposes as unpaid labor and institutional repression of minorities that are held to the requirements of Iranian citizenship and yet routinely denied its rights.