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Iran Leadership’s Antagonistic View of Nuclear Negotiations

 

Although the nuclear negotiations are ostensibly taking place with the blessing of the supreme leader, Khamenei’s commentary on them has been pessimistic from the start, and distinctly averse to compromise. The ayatollah wields ultimate authority over any deal, as well as over all other matters of Iranian policy, and he has made it clear that the nation’s negotiators are barred from agreeing to any limits on Iran’s enrichment capability or any significant expansion of its relationship with international inspectors.

Although these policies and attitudes have been well established, Khamenei’s most recent comments seem to uniquely suggest that Tehran does not expect a deal to emerge from negotiations and is instead planning for an expansion of antagonistic relations at the conclusion of talks. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Khamenei said he did not believe the US would agree to the complete removal of economic sanctions, even though this is still a firm demand on the part of Tehran.

There is an acknowledged contradiction between what Khamenei expects from negotiations and what he believes is attainable, and it is difficult to reconcile this contradiction with an optimistic outlook on the prospects for an agreement. Perhaps recognizing this, Khamenei’s speech also asserted that Iran would be able to weather the renewal of US-led sanctions, and could even come out on top.

“If sanctions are to be the way, the Iranian nation can also do it,” the supreme leader said. “A big collection of the world’s oil and gas is in Iran so Iran if necessary can hold back on the gas that Europe and the world is so dependent on.”

While this is indicative of a willingness to confront the West that has always characterized the Islamic Republic, it is also at odds with current circumstances. Oil prices fell by approximately 60 percent globally in the latter half of 2014, due in large part to a boost in supply. Contrary to Iran’s urging, Saudi Arabia and its allies in OPEC have refused to cut production to stabilize price.

If these circumstances persist, a drastic cut in Iranian supply would do more damage to the Iranian economy than to Western economies. On a global scale, such a cut would probably do little more than bring prices back near their previous level, barring other unforeseen changes.

While the specified strategy may be ineffective, it speaks to a more general attitude of aggression toward the West, and one that is not unique to Khamenei but is shared by President Hassan Rouhani, described by some Western officials as a moderate. On Tuesday, Rouhani boasted of Iran’s progress in nuclear development, but complained that that progress has been held back by negotiations.

Rouhani vowed not to give up those advancements, even as he continues to pursue the negotiations to their deadline at the end of June. This seeming contradiction is reminiscent of comments made by Rouhani in 2006 when he served as lead nuclear negotiator and boasted that by maintaining a “calm environment” Iran had been able to reassure the European powers while also making surreptitious progress in its nuclear program.

Nevertheless, US President Barack Obama and others have been operating on the assumption that Iran might yet be interested in making a legitimate compromise and signing a comprehensive deal. In support of that view, these individuals have quoted those Iranian statements that are seemingly geared toward creating the “calm environment” that Rouhani has spoken of.

Some of these communications have supposedly made reference to a fatwa by the supreme leader indicating that nuclear arms are religiously forbidden for Iran. In an editorial at US News and World, James S. Robbins says that the Obama administration frequently trumpets this supposed edicts, but Robbins adds that the fatwa may not even exist. No known statements on the topic by Khamenei take the form of an official, binding pronouncement and in any event, even if there was such a fatwa it would be reversible.

Robbins suggests that the statements that have been misconstrued as a fatwa have in fact been a strategic response to international pressure, and have thus been aimed at temporarily alleviating some Western fears. But Robbins advises policymakers to expect the Iranian narrative to change dramatically once it has the nuclear weapons capability that Rouhani has indicating it is likely still pursuing.

Many other analysts and commentators have similar expectations, but many of these same people fear that the Obama administration is effectively insulating itself from their input, focusing on Iran’s public narrative to the exclusion of evidence suggesting that it has other long-term plans. Some of the most vocal critics of Iran’s nuclear advancements have come from the Israeli government, but relations between Israel and the Obama administration have significantly deteriorated over the issue.

On Wednesday, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that the US is now withholding some information about the nuclear talks from Israel, apparently in response to the leak of information regarding the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges that US is now prepared to allow Iran to keep.

In reporting on this, the Jerusalem Post added on Wednesday that it also appears that the US and its traditional Middle Eastern ally are now using each other’s intelligence on Iran, but not collaboratively. Instead, the same information is being used in different contexts to either support or oppose the continuation of nuclear talks along their current line.

Israel feels that the US has given up as much as 80 percent of what Iran wants out of those talks, and the leadership of the Jewish state continues to maintain that Iran should be allowed no enrichment capability whatsoever. Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies on Tuesday, former US diplomat Dennis Ross attempted to frame some sort of compromise between the increasingly disparate Israeli and American perspectives. According to Arutz Sheva, Ross emphasized the role of transparent inspections on an “anytime, anywhere” model, something that Tehran has thus far vigorously resisted. He also stated that there should be serious, clearly outlined consequences for Iran in the event that it cheats on whatever deal is signed.