Zarif’s various remarks were arguably contradictory in the sense that they declared that the two sides of the talks shared a “common goal,” but also decried Western powers’ negotiating positions and attempts to generate compromise toward a final agreement. Zarif described Western demands upon the Islamic Republic as illegitimate and humiliating, and he asserted that Iran has by contrast proposed “practical, balanced, and realistic solutions.”
Negotiators and diplomats from the US, Britain, and France have, however, observed that Iran has been unwilling to compromise on key points that have been raised repeatedly in the now almost one year old negotiations. Indeed, this perception of intransigence is supported by official statements by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has set and reiterated several red lines barring his negotiators from moving away from Iran’s original positions.
Zarif’s letter appeared to invoke at least one of those red lines, in that it insisted upon the international community removing economic sanctions en masse at the conclusion of talks rather than removing them gradually as Iran demonstrates compliance with the agreement and avoids further work on a nuclear weapon. “The lifting of the entire sanctions is an indispensable part of every deal,” Zarif wrote.
Nevertheless, as AFP reported, Zarif’s comments on Wednesday also insisted that a final agreement was within reach. This optimism may imply that the foreign minister believes the demonstrated strategy of dictating terms of a final agreement will meet with compliance from the West.
Iran’s harshest critics have frequently expressed concern that this is a realistic possibility. They have also suggested that the West has already been too soft with its negotiations and has given away too much to Iran via temporary sanctions relief and extended deadlines. An opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post suggests that the administration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has effectively controlled the nuclear issue by stalling for time while also accruing economic benefits under the Joint Plan of Action.
The Post indicates that Rouhani’s own statements even seem to support this view. He has been quoted as saying, “I promise the Iranian people that the centrifuges will not stop spinning, but… people’s lives must continue to get better day by day.” It seems that the extension of negotiations, which were originally slated to wrap up last July, is thus the best case scenario for Rouhani, in that it allows Iran’s current nuclear work to go on unchecked while also bringing some relief from sanctions.
It is also worth noting that Rouhani has largely taken personal credit for the resulting improvements in the Iranian economic situation. Bloomberg confirmed this on Wednesday when it reported that Rouhani had touted his government for reversing a two year recession and bringing Iran to a situation of four percent annual growth and a reduction of the rate of inflation from 40 percent to 17 percent.
However, Bloomberg also indicates that these numbers represent only the first six months of the Iranian year, which runs from March to the end of summer. And as the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Tuesday, Iran’s economic indicators in recent weeks have effectively reversed the positive trend. In the face of low oil prices and reduced investor confidence because of the lack of a nuclear deal, Iran now stands to see its economic situation worsen in spite of the continuation of limited sanctions relief
The extension of the nuclear deadline has been widely credited as the main factor in this change, but Tehran is not expected to soften its own demands to make a future deal more likely. Thus far, the Rouhani administration has continued to reject Western negotiators demands at the same time that it has hedged against domestic unrest that might result from the ultimate failure of the talks.
On one hand, Rouhani insisted that oil prices would rise again, saying, “Our future is bright.” On the other, his budget for the upcoming year increases funding for the security forces that have quashed protests in the past.
However, that budget assumes an average oil price that is about ten dollars per barrel higher than the current price. Thus, there is some uncertainty about the realism of projected funding increases for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij militia.
If oil prices remain low, the Iranian people may experience increased economic hardship but the government may also be unable to suppress expressions of discontent. This could ultimately undermine the regime’s attempts thus far to exert close control over the nuclear issue, since low oil prices and a high level of unrest will make it more necessary than ever for Tehran to accept compromise in order to secure large-scale relief from economic sanctions.