Foreign Affairs: Is Iran ready for normalcy?

Western assumptions that Tehran has lost its revolutionary zeal will be put to the test, after Monday’s deadline for a deal over the mullahs’ nuclear program.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at UN General Assembly, September 24 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at UN General Assembly, September 24
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Persians might negotiate while drunk but will not sign unless sober, wrote Herodotus, the Greek historian who chronicled the first great clash between Persia and Europe.
As modern Persians again clash with the outer world, drinking is out of the question for the negotiators – whose faith would likely have shocked their ancestors Xerxes, Cyrus and Darius.
If anything, judging by Israeli leaders’ attitude toward negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, one might think the drunkards are Tehran’s interlocutors.
“It’s a bad deal,” warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the previous agreement loomed – a cry that mattered little, for the deal still hatched in disregard of Netanyahu’s post-factum admonition that it was “a historic mistake,” and despite Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s lamentation the following morning that “nobody is happy in Jerusalem today.”
What will Jerusalem say Monday, after the negotiators’ self-imposed deadline for a second deal elapses? Last year’s deal, struck between Tehran and the P5+1 world powers, granted Iran gradual and conditional access to an estimated $7 billion in sanctioned assets, in turn for capping its uranium enrichment at 5 percent of fissile purity. The deal was celebrated in Tehran as a Western license to enrich uranium, and in Washington as the first American-Iranian deal since the Khomeini revolution.
Now, the effort to expand that deal is part of a longer- term vision of normalization whereby sanctions would, in due course, be fully lifted in turn for a pacified and transparent nuclear program. All of which brings to mind two contradictory analogies: Munich ’38, which is what Israel fears; and Star Wars ’88, for which Washington hopes.
Since last year, political, military and economic circumstances have become even more complex than they had been previously, further complicating the question which Western spies, generals, diplomats and pundits are asking: Is Iran ripe for normalcy? If struck, a new deal would likely limit the centrifuges Iran would be allowed to activate.
As of this writing, Iran demands 10,000, more than twice the Western figure. In addition, Iran would reduce plutonium production, and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to supervise its nuclear activity. A deal might also involve the underground fuel enrichment installation at Fordow. Lastly, Iran might transfer half its enriched uranium to Russia.
The powers’ rationale is to impose on Iran conditions that would keep it about a year away from the potential to create a bomb. The Iranian effort is to remain but a few months away from such capacity, and at the same time to remove the sanctions.
During meetings last week in Muscat, Oman, the Iranians frustrated US Secretary of State John Kerry by refusing to compromise on enrichment, a stance that forced Kerry to keep offers for faster and larger sanction removal in his briefcase. Now, in Vienna – with but four days to their deadline – negotiators have yet to bridge their gaps.
If a deal is not reached, there are two possible outcomes: cessation of the talks and admission of failure, or moving the goalpost by creating a new deadline.
Both scenarios would further bruise an already wounded US President Barack Obama. Failure would add another fiasco to his diplomatic record, while a new deadline would give Congress time to organize its anti-compromise coalition of skeptical Democrats and hostile Republicans.
The legislature’s attitude has been made plain in a joint statement by Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, and Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk. Having jointly authored anti-Iranian sanctions, the two now demanded to “dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program.” For good measure, they threatened new sanctions should Monday breed what they will judge a bad deal.
The Iranian negotiators’ political situation is not much better. Like Obama, they face an opposition: in their case, hard-liners for whom the US remains the “Great Satan.” An appearance of strategic retreat in general, but particularly in the wake of an American-led dictate, might result in internal power struggles that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif might prove unequipped to win.
The mullahs’ perplexity is further intensified by regional mayhem. Though ordinary Iranians don’t feel it in their streets, their country is at war, in the wake of the past four years’ Arab Upheaval.
The balance of Iran’s gains and losses across the Middle East in recent years is ambiguous.
On the one hand, Tehran now dominates Damascus and Baghdad; is gradually taking over the Yemeni capital Saana, and while its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, does not rule Beirut, it successfully paralyzes its political process. This strategic expansion is on a scale no Persian regime has achieved since the Sassanid Empire’s brief occupation of Egypt, Syria and the Land of Israel during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.
On the other hand, Tehran’s Arab proxies are all embattled, and their wars have positioned Iran as the supreme enemy in the eyes of millions of Sunnis. Even from the viewpoint of Islamist Iranians, this is undesirable.
Unlike the shah, who looked down on the Arabs, Ayatollah Khomeini sought to blur the differences between Arabs and Iranians – who share a script but belong to different ethnicities, speak unrelated languages and are mostly on the opposite sides of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide.
Today, Khomeini’s hope is dashed. Iran is seen by Arab governments as a meddler with aspirations for regional hegemony.
This is why Saudi Arabia has threatened to launch its own effort to enrich uranium if Iran’s nuclear program is not pacified.
In short, no matter where an Iranian policymaker comes from politically or religiously, he must suspect these days that his country is suffering from imperial overreach – even before one considers the hefty financial costs of maintaining a foreign army like Hezbollah’s, or filling empty coffers like the Syrian government’s; or training Yemeni rebels, as Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi recently charged Iran.
Such costs, which add up to billions that appear in no transparent budgetary report, are in addition to the effect of the sanctions, which have shrunk the Iranian economy by 25% over the past four years. Worse yet from Iran’s viewpoint, oil prices have plunged 28% since June, thus further slowing an already sanctioned inflow of petrodollars, from $9b. in 2011 to an annualized $4b. right now.
Seen this way, Iran’s situation, both internally and vis-à-vis the West, brings to mind that of the Soviet Union in its last years.
Historical analogies are always flawed, but in this case are too tempting to avoid.
Like the USSR in its final years, the Islamic Republic is a strategically outstretched economic disaster zone, whose ideals are increasingly alien to millions born after its founders’ revolution.
Reports from Iran indicate that mosque attendance is declining, women defy dress restrictions, prostitution in Tehran is booming, and students flock to parties where Western music blares and alcohol flows.
Western hopes that the Iranian Mikhail Gorbachev is already in our midst are therefore not far-fetched. The sanctions’ effect on Iranian leaders may indeed prove to be the same as the Star Wars program was on Gorbachev, who soberly concluded he could not defeat the West economically, and consciously surrendered to its wealth.
The problem with this analogy is that Gorbachev emerged three years and two successors after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the emblem of Soviet stagnation. The Iranian Brezhnev, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is alive, and though unwell of late has been well enough to breathe down the throat of would-be reformers, and also to tweet last week a call for Israel’s annihilation.
It remains to be seen whether Khamenei’s power base, the omnipresent Revolutionary Guards, is the equivalent of the Soviet nobility in its last years.
What is clear is that hatred for the Revolutionary Guards’ beneficiaries, and their frequently undeserved wealth and clout, is much the same as the resentment that animated the Communist Party’s degeneration and preceded its downfall.
On the other hand, unlike Communism, which was an artificial transplant in Russian history, Islam’s position in Iranian history is organic, and assumptions of its clergy’s imminent demise might prove premature and also unfounded.
This is why the analogy that comes these days to the minds of Netanyahu, Liberman and also centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid is not Star Wars ’88, when Gorbachev gave up on competing with US president Ronald Reagan’s multi-billion-dollar space-based defense program, and stunned the world by announcing at the UN drastic cuts in Moscow’s military spending.
Rather, looking to Vienna, the common Israeli analogy is Munich ’38: when unreconstructed fascists blinded gullible democrats while leading them to Armageddon.
To Middle Israelis, Obama’s apparent assumption – that Islamic State’s Sunni zealots have not only unseated the ayatollahs as the world’s leading fanatics, but also turned them into moderates who can now be harnessed to fight for America – is as naive as Neville Chamberlain was in Munich.
Seen this way, the rush to remove sanctions and declare Iran ready for normalcy is but a wishful thinker’s attempt to fast-forward history.
American negotiators, for their part, say the deal would not immediately remove sanctions, and that by opening up commercially Iran would mellow politically, the way China did in its time.
Monday’s news will not scatter the fog in which Vienna’s negotiators are now shrouded.
Yet even the thickest mist will not hide Vienna’s geographic claims to fame: the deepest a Muslim invasion ever penetrated the West, an hour from the former Czechoslovakia by train, and an hour from Munich by plane.