Iran's End-Game Strategy in Nuclear Negotiations
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif met in Geneva last week to discuss ways to expedite negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have already decided that the timing is right to sign a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action. Rouhani, a shrewd, seasoned deal-maker who has the confidence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has taken the measure of the U.S. president over the last year of negotiations. He has positioned Tehran to achieve its key negotiating objective: suspending U.S. and EU sanctions while preserving the key elements of Iran's nuclear program. Rouhani now can present an argument likely to persuade even Khamenei.
As a keen observer of the U.S. and European political scenes, Rouhani no doubt realizes that the U.S. president is heavily invested in concluding what Obama regards as a historic agreement with Tehran. France, Britain, and Germany will probably stay out of the way, especially given the benefits for their major national business concerns. Similarly, Russia and China will support a deal that the Iranian regime approves.
Rouhani has seen Obama successfully use the substantial power of his executive office to take action on hotly contested domestic U.S. immigration issues and on controversial U.S. foreign policy matters, such as opening diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. Even more noteworthy, Rouhani observed Obama's stark warning to the U.S. Congress that any legislative effort to impose new sanctions on the Iranian regime would meet his veto, because in Obama's view, it would risk derailing a nuclear agreement. Rouhani certainly knows as well that the statutes governing sanctions on Iran allow the U.S. president to waive certain provisions, as he deems it appropriate, if the Iranian side is negotiating in good faith. Any new legislation will require a veto-proof majority vote.
At the same time, however, the Iranian president knows that the 2014 U.S. congressional elections put Republicans in control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. With the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign season fast approaching, the likelihood of concluding a nuclear deal that suspends sanctions on Iran's oil exports and central bank will soon begin to fade. Tehran may come to believe that it is in its best interests to wrap up a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action in the coming weeks.
Obama's decision to do everything within his power to avoid a congressional vote on a nuclear agreement could create a significant advantage for Tehran. Obama could sign the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action and announce that he is concluding an executive agreement - one that as such is not subject to Senate approval. As part of the deal's implementation, Obama could begin to suspend sanctions against the Iranian regime and continue to do so during his remaining time in office, until January of 2017. The timing for signing the agreement would no longer be held hostage to 2016 electoral politics. Moreover, if Tehran could obtain the release during this period of a substantial portion of the $100 billion in restricted assets currently held off-limits, the viability of the Iranian regime would be preserved, and its coffers replenished.
Obama himself will be the greatest defender of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action - the president will not want to see his signature diplomatic achievement undone by a Republican Congress. With the release of blocked revenues, Khamenei and Rouhani would be able to ride out an eventual reinstatement of sanctions and, most important, the regime's nuclear program could continue to advance, unimpeded by a so-called plan of action. After all, plans do change. The Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action could well go down the same path to oblivion as the infamous Saadabad Agreement of 2003 and the subsequent Tehran Declaration masterminded by then-National Security Council Secretary Rouhani.
A history of subterfuge
President Rouhani's impressive record of subterfuge and deception in nuclear negotiations with the United States and European Union is well known to Khamenei. The Saadabad Agreement and the Tehran Declaration testify to Rouhani's skill in reaching agreements that, notwithstanding their provisions, do not interfere with the regime's attempts to advance Iran's nuclear program. Rouhani himself proudly boasted that the terms of those deals proved to be no obstacle for the nuclear program. Rouhani is no doubt confident he can do it again, especially with a U.S. president so determined to reach a deal.
Iranian negotiators already appear to have made it impossible to effectively verify compliance under any prospective deal. In interviews with the U.S. press, Obama administration officials have said that the International Atomic Energy Agency would certify that there are no undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran. Given the regime‘s history of keeping covert nuclear facilities and operations, it is preposterous to believe that the monitoring and inspections regime of a comprehensive agreement could be regarded as effective in the absence of mandatory no-notice suspect site inspections. Moreover, Iranian violations are unlikely to lead to a public challenge of Iranian compliance so long as Obama is in office. It is well known that Obama deceived the American public about the effects of his healthcare program, which is considered his signature domestic achievement. Would he overlook violations of the Comprehensive Plan of Action to protect the integrity of his prize foreign policy achievement?
Taking all of this into account, it is not surprising to hear reports that Rouhani is pushing Khamenei to approve a deal sooner rather than later. Sanctions have hit Iran's oil exports and its financial and banking sectors, cutting off revenues crucial to the operations of the regime. Oil revenues fund critical needs, including salaries and benefits for members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basiij - this secures the absolute loyalty of security forces to the Supreme Leader, an insurance policy against civilian protest. These revenues are also needed to continue the nuclear program and accelerate its pace; to extend low-cost loans, grants, and foreign and military aid to international partners; to support militant proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah; and, of course, to amass personal wealth for regime leaders.
The Saudi decision to allow the price of oil to fall further undermines the viability of the Iranian regime. Rouhani can make a persuasive case to Khamenei that the damage inflicted on Iran's economy is too great for the regime to sustain, and other options to increase revenue are bleak. As noted in reports in Gulf News, taxing large, private companies owned by Khamenei's allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is a non-starter. Eliminating cash subsidies to already cash-strapped Iranians will only further turn Iranian society against the regime; a popular uprising certainly must be avoided. While Iranians may not suffer as acutely now as they did during the Iran-Iraq war, placing a greater burden on the citizenship is too risky.
What will Tehran's end-game strategy be? Khamenei could agree with Rouhani and direct him to reach a political agreement or to sign a Comprehensive Joint Action Plan by the March deadline; let us call this Option A. Alternatively, he could tell his negotiators to carry talks forward in a manner that requires a succession of interim agreements, each of which buys more time for the nuclear program and compels the United States and the European Union to incrementally adjust sanctions; this is Option B.
Option A offers the better avenue for the Supreme Leader. This strategy neutralizes the threat from the U.S. Congress, which could otherwise impose additional sanctions or influence the terms and conditions of the Comprehensive Joint Action Plan. At the same time, it preserves the Iranian regime by avoiding a potentially catastrophic economic collapse, and it secures access to many billions of dollars in assets currently out of reach, again neutralizing any reinstatement of sanctions. Furthermore, Iran's nuclear program could advance: Compliance would be difficult to verify, while the Obama administration would defend what it considers a historic U.S. foreign policy achievement. Khamenei may now be ready to let Rouhani sign a nuclear deal before the March deadline.