Taming The Ayatollahs: The Prospects of A Comprehensive Deal With Iran

Earlier this month, the P5 +1 powers reached a framework agreement with Iran on the future of the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. This framework offers a path towards ending a 12-year old conflict and an even longer period of frozen diplomatic relations between Iran and the West.

With a self-imposed deadline on the 30th of June, there is still a long way to go until a final comprehensive deal can be signed. As such, however, deadlines have been extended in the past. Regardless, in this context, the focus of the negotiating parties is on resolving the outstanding issues and not a specific date.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP

Even though all negotiating powers have agreed on the framework for a final deal, the rhetoric of the United States and Iran show serious differences. While the U.S. maintains that sanctions will be lifted on Iran only gradually after important steps of the final agreement have been implemented, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that he expects all sanctions to be lifted on the first day that the final agreement is in place. U

.S. lawmakers have been very skeptical toward a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran and are worried that the deal might be too favorable for Iran. Legislation that would enable Congress to have a stronger influence on the implementation of the deal and the sanctions relief might be passed very soon, after a compromise with the Obama administration seems to have been struck.

At the same time, one has to keep in mind that U.S. and Iranian negotiators, both, are speaking to specific audiences when they make these statements. While Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama are struggling to convince Congress to accept a possible deal and cooperate in lifting the sanctions, the Iranian negotiating team under Foreign Minister Zarif needs to satisfy the demands of hardliners in Iran, who still think that negotiating with the United States is a bad decision. Thus, even if the negotiating parties manage to agree on a comprehensive deal, this deal would still need to be sold to influential lawmakers and politicians at home.

The debate in the U.S. Congress is very transparent to the public and the Obama administration seems confident that a deal with Iran would pass the final scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers. In Iran, the situation is much more opaque. Many believe that the Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamenei will have the final say over a nuclear deal. But other influential groups such as the Revolutionary Guard might weigh in as well. The decision-making process within the Iranian government is unclear to outsiders; another reason why statements made by the leadership must be interpreted with care.

Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, Iran AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

In addition to this, much is at stake for the Heads of State in both countries. President Obama needs a successful conclusion of the negotiations with Iran to end his Presidency with a positive legacy. This deal could define whether Obama’s foreign policy approach will be seen as a success or a failure in years to come. On the other hand, President Rouhani was voted into office on the promise to have the sanctions lifted and thus, greatly improves the Iranian economy. Should the negotiations fail or be interpreted as a bad compromise for Iran, Rouhani’s popularity will almost certainly plummet. This historic opportunity to lead Iran out of its isolation and into a brighter future might be lost and should the sanctions stay in place, the hardliners will gain a major win over the liberal faction represented by the Rouhani government.

Despite the diverging rhetoric, all sides are positive that a deal can be reached by June 30th. So what could such a deal achieve? Although the negotiating parties reiterated that only the Iranian enrichment program is subject of the negotiations, there is an implicit hope that a comprehensive deal could open the doors for cooperation in other fields. The deteriorating situation in Yemen as well as the on-going conflicts in Syria and Iraq could only benefit from closer cooperation between Iran and the International Community. The negotiators, however, have been tight-lipped when asked if such issues had been discussed at the nuclear talks. Two things have to be considered here.

First, after 12 years of failed negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program, trust has eroded considerably. Thus, even if a comprehensive deal could lead the way toward cooperation in addressing the various conflicts in the Middle East, it is unclear how much actual commitment there will be in the end.

Second, American allies Israel and Saudi Arabia are extremely skeptical towards any cooperation with Iran. Competing to be the dominant power in the region, Saudi Arabia will not easily accept a rapprochement between Iran and Western countries when it comes to tackling regional conflicts. The United States has briefed Israel and Saudi Arabia continuously on the state of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But it has also made clear that there are serious disagreements between the U.S. and Iran outside of the nuclear talks.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty

Politically, the West and Iran remain too far apart as to raise hopes towards an effective cooperation in promoting peace in the Middle East. But even if a nuclear deal only opens the door to regular talks without any expected outcome, much has been achieved. The field that could most likely be a game changer is the economy.

Lifting sanctions will make it easier for foreign companies to invest in Iran and reinstate trade relations. Delegations from several countries have already visited Iran to explore possible opportunities. While Iran becoming a regional economic powerhouse could change the power structure in the Middle East with an unknown outcome, it would also empower the young and well-educated Iranian population seeking job opportunities that have thus far been denied to them. Deepening international business relations and offering young Iranians attractive jobs in the globalized economy might be a much more powerful driver for positive change in the region than any political talks with the official government.

A comprehensive deal curbing the Iranian nuclear enrichment program bears a lot of potential. If any of these possibilities will become reality remains to be seen.

Annika Zech

Annika Zech

Contributor at InPRA
Annika Zech holds an Undergraduate degree in European Studies and a Master's degree in Global Studies.

After various internships with NGOs and the United Nations offices in Vienna, she is currently working as a research assistant for the foreign correspondent’s office of the Japanese daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun. In this function, she has covered the P5 +1 nuclear talks with Iran for the past 2.5 years and attended various press events and background briefings by diplomats involved in the talks.
Annika Zech