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Endgame: the United States and Iran

What stands in the way of Iran and the US cooperating openly to meet twin threats of Sunni extremism and state failure is any failure to resolve the nuclear deadlock. 

Iranian President Rouhani speaks at New America event in New York City Iranian President Rouhani speaks at New America event in New York City. Nancy Siesal/Demotix. All rights reserved.As the deadline of November 24 for the completion of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 looms before us much more is at stake than just the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

The outcome of these negotiations is likely to determine, above all, the trajectory of US-Iran relations over the next several decades. This is why US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, both of whom have invested a great deal in the success of the current negotiations met recently in Oman in the company of Catherine Ashton to try and work out the outlines of a deal that could be ratified at the next round of formal negotiations in Vienna.

Little is known authoritatively about the substance of the Oman meeting although speculations in the press have given a negative spin to the outcome of these talks. However, recent reports that Iran has agreed to ship out much of its already enriched uranium to Russia to be turned into fuel rods that cannot be used for weapons purposes indicate that Tehran is willing to be flexible in meeting some of the western demands.

Both the United States and Iran recognize that the failure of this crucial round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program will provide the opponents of a US-Iran deal with ample ammunition to scuttle these talks and lock the two countries into a confrontational mode for decades to come. This is why the Obama administration and the Rouhani government have tried their best to improve the atmospherics surrounding the negotiations and have desisted from acrimonious exchanges in public.

Nonetheless, the forces arrayed against a positive outcome in both countries are very formidable. The Republican-controlled US Congress is spoiling for a fight on this issue with the President to demonstrate that Obama has gone soft both on Iran and on nuclear non-proliferation issues in general. The Republicans hope to capitalize on the media-fed negative image of Iran harbored by large segments of the American public whose understanding of the complexity of Iran-US relations is minimal if not non-existent.

The formidable Israel lobby in the United States is also arrayed against any compromise solution regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The lobby takes its cue from the Netanyahu government, whose rhetoric portrays Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel and insists that Tehran should be left with no nuclear enrichment capability at all lest it covertly use it to develop nuclear weapons. This stand flies in the face of the assurances given to non-nuclear states by the NPT regarding their right to nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes.

More important, such a position, which the United States wisely jettisoned a long time ago, will never be acceptable to Iran and is, therefore, certain to scuttle the negotiations. It is the breakdown of the negotiating process that is Israel’s real objective since it fears that its success will mark the beginning of an American-Iranian rapprochement that is likely to reduce Israel’s strategic value to the United States and reduce Tel Aviv’s clout in Washington on issues related to the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”.

The “rejectionists” on the Iranian side are no less formidable. They include elements of the Revolutionary Guard as well as hardline clerical and non-clerical factions that do not trust that President Rouhani and, especially, his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is the leading Iranian negotiator, are committed to or capable of protecting Iranian national interests especially in the nuclear arena. They believe that the Rouhani-Zarif team is likely to sacrifice Iran’s long-term goals at the altar of a short-term deal with the P5+1 that could add to their popularity at home.

Some of these forces are driven by a genuine commitment to the objective of protecting Iran’s capability to manufacture nuclear weapons some time in the future for security as well as prestige reasons. Others are propelled by more base motives of factional rivalry and the struggle for influence and power in the sphere of domestic politics.

Leaders of several rejectionist factions have the ear of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, although the latter has so far prevented them from scuttling the negotiations as a part of his wait and see policy. If, however, the end result of the negotiations, especially on the issues of enrichment capacity permitted to Iran and the timing and sequence according to which sanctions will be lifted, does not meet his expectations, he may use these forces to justify bringing the negotiating process to an end.

In sum the success of these negotiations is not a foregone conclusion but neither is their failure. The Iranian leadership is interested in the speedy lifting of the sanctions in order to give momentum to the Iranian economy especially since oil prices have shown a distinct downward trend in the past few months.

Equally important, the legitimacy of the regime has become tied to the lifting of sanctions in the eyes of the Iranian population. If the negotiations fail, the regime will have to pay a heavy price for it domestically with spontaneous eruptions of public unrest very possible.

The Obama administration mired as it is in unwinnable conflicts in Iraq and Syria is desperately seeking a foreign policy success that the achievement of a nuclear deal with Iran, especially if it can be sold as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capacity, may be able to provide. Moreover, the more discerning members of the administration recognize that the United States can neither neutralize the threat posed by ISIS nor stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria without Iran’s help. This is the case because Iran is the most influential external player in Iraq and the principal backer of the Assad regime. It is also the regional power most capable of training and advising local forces to fight ISIS and has excess trained manpower capacity in the form of the Revolutionary Guards, and especially its elite Quds force that can be mobilized to directly confront ISIS.

Above all, the realization seems to be beginning to dawn on official circles in Washington that it is Sunni extremism nurtured above all by the Saudi regime and its antediluvian ideology that poses the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East and not Shia Iran and its proxies in the region, some of which such as the Iraqi regime happen to be America’s friends as well. In other words, Iranian and American interests in the Middle East are more congruent with each other than the leadership on either side is willing to admit publicly.

What stands in the way of Iran and the US cooperating openly to meet the twin threats of Sunni extremism and state failure – and the two are inextricably linked with each other  – is the failure to resolve the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in this light, it becomes imperative for both Washington and Tehran to resolve their differences on the nuclear issue in a reasonable manner that is acceptable to both sides and that can pave the way for Iranian-American cooperation to tackle the major security threats facing the region. One hopes that this can be achieved before the November 24 deadline.

About the author

Mohammed Ayoob is a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and author of Will the Middle East Implode? (Polity 2014).


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