Tehran and Washington dig in their heels
Washington - The days before the deadline for reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme saw both Washington and Tehran digging in their heels. In Washington, this was led by opponents of the deal in Congress and among political commentators; in Iran, it was by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the parliament, which vowed to “preserve the Iranian people’s nuclear achievements”.
Listening to the rhetoric coming out of Tehran, one might have thought that the negotiations were just starting, not in their final days before a deadline.
Khamenei seemed to backtrack on the interim deal reached in April, saying economic sanctions against Iran should be lifted as soon as an agreement is signed, instead of after Iran’s compliance had been confirmed. He rejected the 10-12 year freeze on nuclear research and development and refused to accept foreign inspections of Iran’s military sites.
Almost identical conditions were imposed by the Iranian parliament.
The Iranian government considered this a violation of the constitution. Government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said a bill before parliament would drag nuclear negotiations “to the street and the alleys of the bazaar”.
Khamenei’s speech drew strong reactions in Washington among those sceptical of a deal and bolstered the position of those who opposed a deal in the first place. Obama administration critics warned that the new Iranian hardline might prompt the administration to make further concessions.
US Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration has made “breathtaking concessions”. He warned the White House that there may be enough Democrats and Republicans to block the deal if Washington makes even deeper allowances to Tehran.
Corker said US Secretary of State John Kerry and the president’s inner circle view an agreement as a “legacy issue” for US President Barack Obama and warned there is concern on “both sides of the aisle that [Obama] is willing to cross some lines that should not be crossed just to get a deal”.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Kerry and Obama will insist on what was agreed to in April. Moreover, two officials close to the negotiations told Bloomberg News that “the US is standing firm in insisting that Iran must grant access and transparency so that the UN inspectors can verify that its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes”.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that “in his 26 years as supreme leader, Khamenei has prided himself on resistance against the US. At age 76, it’s not easy to abandon your life principles.”
There is also an impression in Tehran that the Obama administration is desperate for a deal, Sadjadpour said. “There is a valid concern that Khamenei feels overconfident that the US is committed to a deal and will not walk away from negotiations,” he said. “The question for Khamenei is which is more dangerous: The economic risks of not signing a deal and remaining under sanctions or the political risks of signing a deal and potentially alienating his hard-liner base?”
The debate in the United States spread to the high-profile lobby groups. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a leading defender of the deal, sent e-mail messages warning of “AIPAC’s plan to kill the Iran deal” and said: “This is the final battle that will decide between war or peace. Failure is not an option.”
AIPAC — the politically powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee — launched its own campaign, calling on supporters to “back diplomacy by increasing pressure”.
AIPAC said: “Congress must continue to insist on a good deal that eliminates every Iranian pathway to a nuclear weapon” and that there must be unimpeded access by the United Nations to suspect sites, including all military facilities; a full accounting by Iran of its prior weaponisation efforts; sanctions relief only after Iran has complied with its commitments; a deal that lasts for decades; and total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Whether a deal was reached at the initial deadline is not as important as what comes after the deal. After an expected extension, the deal most likely will be signed and Obama will claim another victory to his latest string of successes.
Obama has demonstrated skill, perseverance and resilience in getting what he wants, and he has wanted this deal for a long time. He has shown that he can overcome strong opposition. But he cannot predict what Iran does after the deal.
Obama hopes that Iran will change but this is a very risky bet for the region. As Sadjadpour put it: “A nuclear deal with Iran is the wedding. The marriage will be assessed in the years to come.”