Iran and the US want a deal, and quick.
Iran is under economic pressure because of the sanctions and both would like to prevent an Israeli attack. The problem is that the best Tehran is likely to offer will likely not be good enough for Israel, because of the worry that Iran would still be able to go nuclear at a time of its choosing.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that he supports President Hassan Rouhani’s latest outreach efforts, though he has reservations, seeming to be hedging his position just in case he wants to pull the plug later.
Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post that “the Iranian government is so desperate to cut a deal because they are running out of money.
“Even if they want to continue the nuclear program, they need to slow it down and get some sanction relief, and then resume it,” said Khalaji.
The nuclear program is vitally important for both Rouhani and Khamenei, he said, adding that the objectives of the Islamic Republic have not changed – “the only thing changed is that they are running out of money.” The goal of the US is to hold the Iranian government accountable, but Khalaji sees an agreement as very difficult to reach.
What it comes down to, said Khalaji, is that besides a deal, there is no other option but to attack. However, there is very little stomach for this in Washington and European capitals.
Hence, they are grasping at any chance of a deal.
If Rouhani fails to get sanction relief, he fails on other agendas he has. So far the government has managed to control the political crisis with the promise and hope generated in people for financial relief; if diplomacy fails then Iran would experience a huge economic and political crisis.
Asked about the importance of senior clerics other than Khamenei, Khalaji said that they do not matter in the country’s politics anymore – “what matters is the supreme leader.” If the supreme leader wants a deal, then there will be a deal, and if not, then no, he asserted.
There are no other really powerful clerics in Iran, because they depend on the government for their livelihoods and are dependent on Khamenei, said Khalaji. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, based in Iraq, is powerful, but Khalaji said he had heard that Sistani said that Iranian officials ignored his recommendations.
Prof. Meir Litvak of the department of Middle Eastern history and director for the Alliance Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the Post, “I am sure that Rouhani enjoys Khamenei’s support, at least up until now and certainly on the nuclear issue.
“I have no idea how far he will let him go,” Litvak said. “I assume that Khamenei is less enthusiastic than Rouhani about any real reconciliation with the US.”
Shahram Chubin, a nonresident senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, spoke to the Post from Switzerland.
While the new Iranian administration defines itself totally differently from its predecessor, it must be kept in mind that until now the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought regime stability and the propagation of the “revolution’s values.”
As result of sanctions, a deterioration of the regional environment and stresses domestically, it now has to choose between these twin goals.
Hence its search for a limited accommodation with the US to relieve the sanctions and domestic stresses, Chubin said. Whether this means a strategic shift in its thinking is doubtful, if only because of hard-liners whose interests are served by Iran’s estrangement from the West.
“Revolutionary values abroad means resistance, opposition to the US regional order, and support for proxy Shi’ite elements,” he said, adding that opposition to Israel plays well on the Arab street.
Chubin believes that Iran’s foreign policy has led to a regional environment polarized between Shi’ites and Sunnis, where its only regional ally, Syria, is under siege.
Rouhani has been given a limited amount of time, said Chubin.
Khamenei essentially told Rouhani to go ahead, you have my support, but if it does not work out, you will be out. Rouhani has to lift the sanctions and deflect pressure from the international community so that Iran can keep its nuclear program intact.
“The US has a short memory, it flips from being an enemy to bear hugs. I don’t think Rouhani will do much more than the ritual of negotiations and inspections,” he said.
Asked about Israel, Chubin said, “Israel always is a pretext, but no Iranian wants to go to war with Israel.
“The regime got caught overextending itself, letting Ahmadinejad say lots of stupid things. Now they are pulling back from that,” he said.
An obstacle to achieving a deal will be that Rouhani will be limited in what he can offer the West as the hard-liners will accuse him of selling out. In any case Chubin believes that Iran wants a quick agreement.
“It will be much easier for Iran to reverse whatever it offers than to reimpose sanctions,” he said.
Emily Landau, a senior research fellow and the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the Post, “I believe that Khamenei would not have allowed Rouhani to run for elections in the first place if he thought there was a chance that he would challenge his authority.”
Landau sees Rouhani as a strong supporter of the Islamic regime and its foreign policy goals.
“It seems to me that they have agreed on a tactic for dealing with the nuclear issue, which relies on the attempt to use a new image of moderation toward the US as a means of securing desperately needed sanctions relief, while playing their hand in a way that nuclear concessions will be minimal,” she said.
Iran will not compromise on its ability to achieve a nuclear weapon at the time of its choosing, she said.
“When Khamenei spoke of ‘heroic flexibility,’ he said this should be carried out while not forgetting one’s goal or one’s rival. This sounds compatible with Rouhani’s strategy,” asserted Landau.
Asked about a possible Israeli attack, she said that the nature of US-Israel relations made one unlikely at this time and that it was premature to speak about it while nuclear negotiations were ongoing.