OIAC -The Times of Israel reported on Wednesday that despite this week’s news of a seven month extension of nuclear negotiations, some or all of the six powers involved in the process will be pushing for a faster conclusion. A senior European diplomat made a statement to this effect in the media, and it reflects persistent optimism about negotiations that critics say have led to very little tangible progress.
But the desire for a rapid conclusion of the newly extended negotiations may also be attributable to fears that hardliners on both sides will only make the process more difficult over time. In the United States, the Republican Party is poised to take majority control of the entire Congress in January, and is expected to try to pass legislation that would guarantee new sanctions on Iran if the negotiations do not come to a favorable conclusion.
The White House has described such plans as counterproductive, but there are some indications that the opposition perspective may be more representative of the will of the American people. Commentary Magazine points out that some recent polls indicate that about 69 percent of US citizens are opposed to a deal with Iran that leaves it with nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, 62 percent regard the Islamic Republic of Iran as an enemy of the United States.
This flies in the face of the Obama administration’s project of bringing Iran fully into the global community and potentially partnering with it on such issues as the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But the American poll numbers may also speak to the claim made by an article in the National Interest that Obama is only willing to go so far in pursuit of that goal.
The article claims that even if the American president wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to make major concessions in nuclear talks, although some of his opponents believe that the US has already given up too much. The National Interest does not take a position on this point, but it does argue that Iran’s more complete unwillingness to make concessions will make a nuclear deal virtually impossible and that “the hard truth is that Iran will have succeeded in becoming a de facto nuclear threshold state.”
The same article notes that both the US and Iran seem to see their best option as kicking the issue further down the line and avoiding open confrontation, even while knowing that an agreement is essentially out of reach. This is not to say that such confrontation is off table, only that it will not be prompted by the conflict-averse Obama administration.
India Times quotes George Petrovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying that the Iranians will become decidedly less accommodating of the negotiating process if Republicans (and possibly the majority of the American people) get their way and force the president to accept the passage of new sanctions.
Nevertheless, some of the long-standing optimism on the other side has been retained in spite of the regime’s rhetorical responses to the latest extension. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has been noted for representing a particularly hardline approach to the negotiations, said this week that he saw signs of new will for an agreement among the Iranian negotiators.
Other critics of the regime, however, regard all such signs of burgeoning cooperation as part of an effort to prolong negotiations on the assumption that they will ultimately either fail or conclude with the West abandoning positions that would actually constrain Iran’s nuclear work.
Preparing for a Post-Talks Budget
The Iranian regime’s Minister of Economics has released a new budget for the country which assumes the continuation of those sanctions, as well as the persistence of oil prices that are only about 70 percent of what Iran typically needs to balance its budget.
The Ministry acknowledged that it had already considered the scenario in which there was no agreement. While an undoubtedly prudent policy, it is perhaps also reflective of the regime’s broader policy of prolonging the negotiations while preparing to walk away or let them fail.
Various observers of Iran have noted that that policy appears to involve an effort to use the negotiating period to secure closer economic, political, and military relationships with regional powers and with other adversaries to the West. High on this list of potential partners is Russia, with which Iran has had numerous discussions about sanctions-defying trade agreements.
Bloomberg reports that on Wednesday the chief executive of Russia’s Lukoil petroleum company met with Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh. The company ceased operations in Iran in 2010 amidst international sanctions, but the meeting evidently signifies preparations to return as soon as those sanctions are lifted. It may even signify an interest in investing in Iran or forming illicit partnerships in the event that Iran’s policies of economic outreach undermine international support for sanctions that technically still remain in place.
Iran has been on a notable charm offensive with investors from various European countries as well. But closer to home its approach has been decidedly more aggressive. Pakistan Today reports that Zanganeh has said that Iran will neither suspend nor delay its oil export agreement with Pakistan and is pressuring its southeastern neighbor to complete its section of a stalled oil pipeline much faster than Pakistan is able to.
The conflict over this pipeline speaks to the deterioration of relations between Iran and Pakistan that has taken place over the course of recent decades. An article published Wednesday in the Express Tribune explains the history of this deterioration and concludes by noting that “Iran, Iran, which was once Pakistan’s major trading partner, has little economic role.” But at the same time, Iran’s aggressive stance on the pipeline issue suggests that it is willing to use its strength in the region to attempt to pressure a change in its current status, even in absence of permanent sanctions relief.
Regional Influence Expanding Amidst Prolonged Negotiations
As negotiations with the P5+1 stand ready to drag on for seven more months, Iran’s influence in the broader Middle East region is growing. The Tower notes that in Bahrain, where Iran has already backed a successful Shiite uprising and created what has been described as a second Hezbollah, last weekend’s popular elections were marred by Iranian-backed attempts to disrupt the voting process.
The Tower adds that this is part and parcel of a broader strategy by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to exploit Shiite populations throughout the Middle East for the sake of advancing its own ends. This is certainly true of Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, where the IRGC has supplied arms and foreign fighters to local Shiite militias as they vie for power with the Sunni Islamic State.
But whether it is through deployment of its own forces or merely through local forces that it controls and directs, there is little doubt that Iran is seeking to expand its role in regional conflicts. As Gulf News put it on Wednesday, Iran seeks to be the “policeman of the Gulf” and it will not hesitate to use the nuclear negotiations with the West in an attempt to gain leverage for the sake of expanding its regional influence.
Even as many Western negotiators continue to express optimism about those talks, Gulf News notes that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged that Iran’s pairing of regional dominance and nuclear power is a complicating factor for future negotiations. Compromise on either or both of these points stands to have serious effects on other Middle Eastern nations, including staunched Western allies.
“We bear responsibility not just for us six but for many states in the world … that have legitimate security concerns about the development of the Iranian nuclear programme,” Steinmeier said.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Wednesday underscored that there is a financial aspect to this responsibility for each concerned United Nations member state. The nuclear monitoring agency announced that its financial resources are being exhausted by ongoing attempts to probe the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program and to overcome Iran’s lack of transparency on the issue.
Reuters notes that the agency did not specify how much additional money it needs to continue that probe, which is viewed as being crucially important to Western decision making during negotiations. But Reuters adds, “Because of the deal’s political importance, diplomats have said there should be no problem raising the required funds.”
Contrasting Human Rights Claims
Many observers have noted the very different strategies being evoked for the nuclear talks by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani on the one hand and the recognized hardliners on the other. Some have also speculated that this signifies a more general split between two factions. The regime’s harshest critics, on the other hand, tend to regard the two groups as different sides of the same coin, plying alternative strategies toward the same ends.
Whatever the case, the appearance of discord may be diminishing if recent news reported by Reuters is any indication. The Iranian parliament has finally relented in its stonewalling of Rouhani’s attempted to appoint a new Minister of Higher Education, Research, and Technology, following the ouster of the previous appointee due to alleged links to mass protests of the disputed 2009 presidential elections.
Rouhani’s fifth candidate for the post, Mohammad Farhadi, was approved on Wednesday, possibly signifying that one side or the other has changed its position in this dispute. But there are few, if any indications that this has coincided with a more general change of policy among either the presidency or the parliament. And indeed both have advanced the same sort of policies that led to the 2009 mass protests and anyone accused of being permissive of it, including the former education minister.
Far from representing change in that repressive status, other recent news seems to indicate that it is still persisting, or even escalating. Iran’s Supreme Court has confirmed a death sentence for Soheil Arabi, who was arrested in November 2013 and charged with “insulting the Prophet” on the basis of his writings on Facebook.
In addition to confirming the sentence, the Supreme Court added an additional capital charge, “spreading corruption on the Earth,” with the apparent intention of barring Arabi from the possibility of a pardon, which is not permissible under Iranian law for the latter charge. The defendant was not tried for this more sever charge, but was illegally convicted out of court.
Unless a judge overturns the additional charge, Arabi faces imminent execution for his online statements.
In spite of stories like this, some continue to claim that the Rouhani administration has presided over a reduction in government repression, or at least certain kinds of government repression. The Associated Press asserted on Wednesday that the 20,000 Jews who remain in Iran have received positive attention from the government in the past year, after having been ignored under the administration of President Ahmadinejad.
And regardless of the situation of Jews, other recent instances of political imprisonment and repression clearly indicate that government discrimination is ongoing and in many cases escalating with respect to the Baha’i religious minority, ethnic Kurds, women, and others.