Last summer, I interviewed Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst and Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service, during which I asked his opinion about the US seriousness for ending the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Katzman said that President Obama was determined to take the issue off his table. The developments that followed, starting from Obama’s call to President Hassan Rouhani and then the historical Geneva interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1, provided compelling evidence that Katzman’s assertion was accurate. So, here we have an administration that is determined to bring the issue to its end. But the question that needs to be addressed is “how far, in terms of concessions, would the US administration be prepared to go?”
Obama has serious constraints when it comes to dealing with Iran. It would be unrealistic to underestimate the power of a Congress that is heavily anti-Islamic Republic and subjective to different lobby groups, first and foremost the Israel lobby. Obama and his administration cannot ignore the hawks in the US establishment, including elements such as influential Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez who is a Democrat but fiercely leads and advocates paralyzing sanction bills against Iran.
On the Iranian side, there are also several red lines drawn by the nezam (political system) that Zarif and his team cannot cross. Iran is not prepared to surrender to the US’ coercive policies for a variety of reasons: the first factor is the significant role that the notion of pride plays in Iran’s foreign policy. In fact, even many American experts argue that pride is the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear program. Second, because one of the pillars of the revolution has been and still is rejection of foreign domination. Finally, Iran’s Supreme Leader argues that if they take one step back under bullying and intimidation of the US, Americans would reuse the same tactics (for example, imposing tough sanctions) until the Islamic nezam is toppled.
As the news emerges, it becomes apparent that there are major differences between Iran and the US on a number of issues. Mr. Araghchi, Deputy Foreign Minister, said in an interview after the recent discussions in Vienna that there were many cases of differences. I must add that on some of those differences, as news has revealed, there is a large gap between the two sides. The six powers (read the US), according to the news, want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activities including the number of centrifuges that spin. Iran does not agree, and apparently the difference between the two sides on this issue is in the range of tens of thousands.
There are other major issues that divide the two parts significantly: for instance, the duration of any limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities, the speed of lifting sanctions, and whether or not the final agreement should cover the scope of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
These are the bad sides of the story. The good side is that on both sides of the fence, there is the will to bring this issue to an end. President Rouhani’s grand policy is to reduce tensions in Iran’s foreign policy and reverse the trend of the economy, thus ensuring tranquility and progress. In this respect, Rouhani, being the Supreme Leader’s representative at the Supreme National Security Council for 23 years, is one of his most trusted personnel and has his support. This places Rouhani in a unique position to simultaneously negotiate inside and outside of Iran.
The US, on the other hand, is trapped in a dangerous trend in the Middle East, which is an unprecedented rise of jihadists in the region from Syria to Egypt to Iraq, coupled with an uncertain and threatening Afghanistan. Obama and top US intelligence officials categorize the situation as a major threat to the security of the US: first, because this trend threatens the stability of the US Arab allies and the region as a whole, which is the one of the most strategic regions in the world for the US interests, and second, because jihadists are the sworn enemies of the US and their rise can potentially make the US and the West vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Any chance to stop and reverse this trend would be possible only if the US cooperates with Iran and collaborates in combatting the Takfiri forces.
Last but not least, the choice that the two sides make is not only about whether or not they agree to bring Iran’s nuclear crisis to an end. This is a very very sensitive issue that I want to emphasize on. The choice, in my view, is about peace and war. Why? Because if the talks fail, the US will go for de facto oil embargo on Iran. In such an eventuality, it is hard to believe that Iran would remain as an uninvolved spectator. Once patience wanes, Iran will retaliate to make life difficult for the US. Be it by the interruption of the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf or other means, the outcome of that would be an inadvertent or planned military confrontation.
What would be the bottom line? I would answer this question with one caveat—that the two sides act rationally. In that case, because the stakes are too high, I would say that even by July 20, and in the very last moments, an agreement may materialize. I agree with a US official, who after the recent talks in Geneva, said, “This has, candidly, been a very slow and difficult process and we are concerned with the short amount of time that is left. But let me be very clear: we believe we can still get it done.”