Next Monday, 24 November, we will know whether months of talks over Iran's nuclear program will end in a comprehensive deal, a comprehensive failure or an agreement to keep negotiating.
The talks have generated great heat in Iran, in the Middle East and in key international capitals, mainly because Tehran and Washington have never been closer to an agreement (strictly speaking it's a negotiation between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, but who are we kidding?).
If there is one thing that both proponents and opponents of a deal would agree upon privately, it is that the negotiation is not really about Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons.
Don't get me wrong. At the core of the talks is a highly technical negotiation designed to do three things: (1) prevent Iran from using its nuclear knowledge and technology to build a weapon, primarily by placing limits on its ability to produce fissile material; (2) put in place an intrusive inspection regime to ensure that if Iran does try to make a bomb, the international community would quickly know about it; and (3) establish a sanctions mechanism that both rewards compliance but also has the capacity to quickly punish Iran if it is found to be cheating.
But the thing that clouds judgments about what constitutes a good or a bad deal, the thing that makes this complex technical negotiation even more complicated and makes the atmosphere around the negotiation highly charged, is that for each of the protagonists — the Rouhani Government, its domestic opponents, the Obama Administration and key regional players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia — the talks are a proxy for their broader objectives.
It is these broader objectives that make the protagonists variously more or less willing to compromise on the nuclear issue. And it is these broader objectives that lead opponents of a deal to charge that the proponents are willing to trade anything to get an agreement, and in turn for proponents to argue that there is no deal that would satisfy opponents.
So what are these broader objectives? Let's start with the Rouhani Government and its opposition within Iran. Rouhani is neither a moderate nor a reformist. His goal is not to change the Iranian regime but to strengthen it. What distinguishes him from his internal opponents is his belief that the best way to do that is by striking a nuclear deal.
I was in Tehran a few weeks ago attending a workshop organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute for Political and International Studies (the think tank of the Iranian Foreign Ministry). The workshop included a long session with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif. Two things were evident.
On the one hand, Iran is confident about its position in the region. In particular, it feels that has the upper hand in their long running power struggle with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have failed in their efforts to dislodge Tehran's key ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia's backyard, Yemen, Houthi rebels, seen by many as aligned with Iran, have seized the capital. Even the rise of Islamic State in Iraq, while presenting some immediate challenges for Tehran, has played into Iranian hands. Suddenly the international focus is less on the brutality of the Syrian regime and more on Islamic State. Meanwhile, Iran can portray itself as a bulwark against jihadist extremism in Iraq.
On the other hand, there was a strong sense of frustration that despite its strategic ascendancy, Iran remained politically isolated and economically vulnerable. At the workshop it was noted with strong disdain the way that Iran had been left out of the Geneva talks on Syria last year and the Paris talks on the rise of Islamic State in Iraq this year. This is not just a practical matter for Iranians, it is also a question of pride – a sense that Iran is not being accorded its due deference in the region.
Likewise, Iran's strategic ascendancy obscures a great economic vulnerability. The limited sanctions relief that has already occurred as a part of the interim agreement, combined with better economic management by the Rouhani Government, has improved the economic situation in Iran, particularly with respect to inflation. But this improvement, and the renewed economic confidence that has come with it, is fragile and susceptible to a breakdown in the nuclear negotiation. You sense that for the Rouhani Government, the nuclear talks are not just about staving off future socioeconomic causes of unrest, it's about realising Iran's full potential – something that won't happen while Iran remains economically isolated.
I have no doubt that the Rouhani Government is bargaining very hard to protect Iran's nuclear program. But it also sees the nuclear issue as a stick that has been used to beat Iran down and keep it isolated. In its view, taking that stick out of the hands of its adversaries is key to both Iran's future and the regime's longevity.
I think for this reason Rouhani has been able to convince Supreme Leader Khamenei to give him the leeway to negotiate. Convincing him to sign off on a deal will be more difficult, however, given that the Leader is more naturally predisposed to the views of those opposing an agreement.
The Iranian domestic opponents of a deal do not form a coherent group, nor do they have a single motive. I am sure there are some within the regime who want to preserve and even enhance Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon should the regime take the decision to do so (and most analysts assume it has not, so far).
But there are two other groups, sometimes overlapping, that are also opposed to a deal for different reasons. First, there are those within the regime who are ideologically opposed to a deal. They tap into a deep vein of distrust of the outside world in Iran (and not just in the regime) that is sceptical of any promise to deliver real sanctions relief in return for deep Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. There are also those who believe that the regime cannot ultimately survive without preserving its ideological enmity to the US in particular, and the West in general. In this view, ending that enmity would remove a key reason for the regime's unity and existence.
In recent years this ideological enmity has, however, overlapped with a more practical opposition to any deal with the US. Parts of the regime have made enormous amounts of money as a result of sanctions. They have done this by either running sanctions-busting schemes or by filling the economic vacuum left by international companies unable to do business in Iran. The expanded role of Revolutionary Guard commercial entities in the economy is one example.
So for ideological and economic opponents, a nuclear deal represents a threat to the regime and in some cases to their personal economic interest. As a matter of fact I think the hardliners are right. In an isolated Iran, the regime and regime hardliners hold all the security cards and increasingly the economic ones as well. A less isolated Iran will empower new economic interest and actors outside the regime.
In Part II of this post I will look at the broader factors driving external proponents and opponents of a deal.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.