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Does Obama Really Want an Agreement with Iran?

By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)

The framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear file concluded in Lausanne on April 2, to be followed by completion of a comprehensive agreement by June 30, was an important achievement for Iran, the United States, and the other P5+ 1 negotiating parties. Now, however, a key question is whether President Obama truly wants an agreement, or whether he will pay agreement opponents such a price that he drives Iran away from the negotiating table. If that happens, all sides will lose.

No sooner were the Lausanne talks concluded and the communique read than disagreements developed and were publicly aired over how to interpret the framework agreement. First came the issue of the American fact sheet put out by the White House. The Iranian side immediately disputed the US interpretation of the agreement. This was followed by other statements by US officials involved in the talks, including the secretary of energy, which were at variance with the Iranian interpretation of what had been agreed in Lausanne.

Then there was the compromise agreement between the White House and the Congress regarding the latter’s role in approving any agreement that might be reached. Rightly or wrongly, Tehran interpreted this agreement as an indication of President Obama’s weakening resolve to reach an agreement with Iran, partly because in the past he had indicated that he would veto such a resolution. As it is, the compromise has pushed back the implementation of an agreement by at least two months.

Another issue causing anxiety in Iran is related to inspection of Iranian military sites that are not connected with the nuclear question. Iran has reacted negatively to a statement by the State Department’s spokesperson that, if Iran does not agree to such inspections. there will be no agreement. In fact, the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty only calls for limited and organized inspections of non-nuclear sites. Nevertheless, the way the spokesperson framed the question aggravated Iranian concerns, partly because, in the past, confidential information Iran provided to the IAEA was leaked. In response, Iranian leaders, from the Supreme Leader to the president and the military chiefs, responded strongly and promised that they would not allow the leaking of the country’s security and military secrets that could endanger its security. Meanwhile, hardline Iranian opponents of the negotiations stated that such acts would amount to “official and sanctioned spying.”

US Tightens the Screws

But these complaints were nothing compared to the feelings of betrayal and anger that more recent events have generated in Iran. For instance, US officials, most notably President Obama, have stated that the US will do whatever it takes to stop what they characterize as Iran’s imperial ambitions. Washington also decided to sequester 20 airplanes sold to the Iranian airline, Mahan, and to sanction the companies that carried out the deal. This decision was justified on the grounds that such prohibitions come under those sanctions imposed on Iran because of its support for terrorism and will continue even if a deal on the nuclear issue is reached. Of course, the United States also renewed oil and banking sanctions.

But even these measures were nothing compared to the spectacle of the recent US-GCC Summit at the White House and Camp David. Obama organized the meeting to reassure the Gulf Arabs that the nuclear deal would not mean either a normalization of US-Iran relations or a slackening of US commitment to the Gulf monarchies in their struggle against so-called Iranian imperialism, which in light of Saudi operations in Yemen sounds ironic at best.

These latter developments provided a golden opportunity for Iran’s hardliners, including influential clerical figures, to attack those who favor reaching a deal with the US. For example, during Friday prayers Ayatollah Janati styled those who believe in US promises and hope that sanctions will be removed and the country’s problems will be resolved as fools lost in unrealistic dreams (Khosh Khial). He asked rhetorically which is better: that Iranians keep their dignity or have a full belly. He answered his own question by saying it is better for Iranians to keep their pride and dignity and remain hungry.

Similarly, as pointed out by Ayatollah Janati, statements and steps by Washington have increased Iranian suspicions that the US is not serious about lifting sanctions and that it will find other ways of keeping Iran under a sanctions regime. Meanwhile, Iran’s negotiating team has been subjected to lengthy and grueling questioning by the Parliament (majlis). Some Iranians have even begun to doubt whether the P5+1 are serious about the successful conclusion of the talks. For example, Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader, recently said that some of the P5+1 are trying to drive the talks into a deadlock.

Plots against Iran?

Even more seriously, these events, the Saudi operations in Yemen, and Islamic State (ISIS or IS) successes in Syria and Iraq have created a sense in Iran, at least within its military establishment, that sinister plots against Iran are afoot. For example, the Supreme Leader warned that there are plans to bring proxy wars close to Iran’s borders and said that such efforts will receive a crushing response. The commander of Iran’s land forces also stated that Iran might be forced to intervene in proxy wars.

Nor are fears about IS plans regarding Iran mere paranoia. ISIS operations are moving close to Iranian borders, and it has reportedly tried to infiltrate Sunni-inhabited areas along Iran’s western and eastern frontiers. Some have even claimed that ISIS is present in Iran, although the authorities have denied this assertion. This view was reiterated by Mohsen Rezaei, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and one of most senior of the Revolutionary Guards’ past commanders to return to the organization. Later, on the anniversary of the liberation of Khoramshahr from Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq War, he said that another difficult trial (Azmoun) is awaiting Iran, adding that Iran needs to resurrect the same spirit that enabled it to liberate Khoramshahr in order to meet approaching challenges. In short, a siege mentality is developing, at least among Iran’s political and military elites.

Thus far, President Hassan Rouhani and his colleagues have not allowed these new misgivings and doubts to affect the nuclear talks. However, if there is no progress in the talks along with some hope of relief from economic sanctions and hardships, and if the threatening language toward Iran continues, their ability to pursue the route of reconciliation and negotiation could be irremediably undermined.

US Choice Point

Clearly, the US must decide what is in its best interests and what kind of policies would best advance these interests. America might conclude, as some political leaders and others already have, that pursuing engagement with Iran is useless and that continued sanctions, isolation, internal destabilization-directly or by proxies such as Saudi Arabia and possibly IS-and perhaps even limited military attacks would be the best course. However, if the US and most notably President Obama want to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Iran, they have not been pursuing the right path over the last two months.

The US is right to be wary of Iran’s reliability, but so are the Iranians right to be concerned about America’s seriousness in reaching an agreement that does not amount to Iran’s unconditional surrender. Similarly, the US is correct to want to limit Iran’s regional ambitions. But it should not at the same time indulge the regional ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US cannot expect Iran to help it defeat IS-if indeed that is the US goal-while feeding Saudi Arabia’s paranoiac hatred of Iran and sanctioning Saudi aggression toward other Shias in Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. After the fall of Ramadi, Iran is already questioning US resolve regarding uprooting IS. In a recent speech, the famous (or infamous) General Ghasem Soleimani said that the distance between the US base in Iraq and Ramadi is only 100 kilometers, so how is it that US planes could not help Iraqi forces in their battle against IS?

In short, the United States and President Obama must decide whether or not they want an agreement with Iran and a chance for better relations. If not, they should continue on the current way. But if they do want an agreement, they should refrain from policies and statements that feed Iran’s fears and misgivings and undermine the ability of its leaders to pursue the path of compromise and accommodation, if not yet of reconciliation.

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About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming September 2014).


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