Will U.S., Iranian Politics Undercut a Nuclear Deal – or Save It?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
By: 
Garrett Nada

A former Iranian lawmaker and a former member of Congress agreed that the question of whether American politics will give President Barack Obama the leeway he needs to reach a nuclear deal with Iran remains one of the central issues as negotiations resume this week. The Middle Eastern nation and the world’s six major powers face a June 30 deadline for converting a blueprint into a final agreement.

Ali-Akbar Mousavi, a member of Iran’s parliament from 2000 to 2004, and Jim Slattery, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 years, were among a panel of experts at USIP on April 20 who assessed the status of the nuclear talks and the political dynamics that will determine the fate of any agreement in Washington and Tehran. Mousavi said he is more concerned about Washington’s ability to make a deal than that of Tehran, while Slattery said that his meetings with Iranian lawmakers in Iran in December returned repeatedly to the question of whether Obama would be able to implement the terms of an agreement.

Conflicting interpretations of terms in the proposed framework that was announced on April 2 have crystallized in recent weeks. Officials in the two capitals have expressed differing views on sanctions relief, inspections of nuclear sites and research and development. With talks resuming this week, negotiators from the seven nations face three months of potentially tough talks to work out their differences.

The following are the main points of the discussion at USIP, which was led by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who serves as the chairman of the Institute’s board. The discussion marked the fourth Iran Forum event hosted by an unprecedented coalition of eight Washington think tanks that also includes the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the RAND Corporation, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, Partnership for a Secure America and the Ploughshares Fund.

Ali-Akbar Mousavi
Former member of Iran's parliament (2000-2004)
Visiting Fellow at Virginia Tech & Human Rights Advocate

  • Iran and the world’s six major powers are close to a historic achievement that could solve a major international crisis peacefully.
  • In Iran, the Rouhani administration, Parliament, the Supreme Leader and the vast majority of citizens have reached a consensus that they want a nuclear agreement. Such a consensus, however, does not exist in the U.S.
  • If negotiations are extended for six months or longer, Iranian domestic politics could interfere. Iran has two major elections in February 2016, one for Parliament and one for the Assembly of Experts.
  • For the first time, the Supreme Leader has mentioned that Iran could discuss other issues with the international community if a nuclear deal is successfully implemented. Regional issues related to ISIS, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan would probably be the first topics of talks.
  • The U.S. and Iran could eventually normalize relations if a nuclear deal is brokered. In the future, Washington may even be able to discuss human rights with Tehran.
  • Iran cooperated closely with the U.S. on overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the U.S. lost an opportunity for further engagement when President George W. Bush said Iran was part of an “axis of evil.”
  • Both the U.S. and Iran lack understanding of each other’s politics and culture. More dialogue is needed.

Jim Slattery 
Former Congressman (D-KS, 1983-1995), Recently Visited Iran 
Partner, Wiley Rein LLP

  • The U.S. and Iran have reached an historic moment; the great tragedy is that domestic political forces may prevent a breakthrough.
  • During a visit to Tehran in December, many people had the same question: can President Obama implement a deal?
  • The political futures of some Iranian leaders depend on getting a deal with the U.S. Their worst nightmare is that, after going out on a limb, Congress may scuttle any accord.
  • An agreement hinges on verification because neither side trusts the other. The Supreme Leader’s statements about denying inspectors access to military sites are troubling.  Overall, however, the plan for a deal shows that Iran has made significant concessions. 
  • Based on 10 years of interaction with Iranian businesspeople, religious leaders and politicians, it’s clear that Iran wants to reset relations with the U.S., with some limitations.
  • Solving the nuclear dispute could create a platform for the U.S. and Iran to discuss common interests, like defeating the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
  • Iran is a regional superpower in terms of energy and people. Its population of 80 million is nearly three times that of Saudi Arabia or Iraq. It has the world’s fourth-largest amount of proven oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves. Its literacy rate is about 90 percent for those under age 45, 60 percent of its university students are female, and the median age of its citizens is 28. 
  • Washington needs to make sure its allies in the region know a nuclear deal will not diminish U.S. support for them. Tremendous diplomatic efforts will be required to reassure them.

Michael Singh 
Former Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council (2005-2008)
Senior Fellow, The Washington Institute 

  • Questions surrounding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program need to be answered upfront. Those answers are critical for designing a sufficient verification regime.
  • The issue of Iran’s missile development should have been included in the talks, because it is linked to the nuclear issue.
  • The U.S. should carefully examine its alternatives if a deal is not reached.
  • Washington should also focus on ensuring that Tehran’s alternatives are worse than making a deal, as an incentive for Iran to accept terms that are better for U.S. interests.
  • Iran cannot afford to negotiate for another six months. But the U.S. has leeway for six months or even a year.
  • The design for the agreement seems to be conceptually flawed in several ways. First, it will likely require future presidents to waive sanctions every six months, and some of the hardest decisions have been left for the future.
  • Second, the deal does not require Iran to dismantle anything. Its nuclear program essentially remains intact. Even if a deal leads to positive changes in Iran’s regional strategy, its neighbors may still view its nuclear program as a threat.
  • Even if sanctions unrelated to the nuclear issue remain in place, lifting other sanctions reduces pressure on Tehran to negotiate on other issues.
  • Sanctions relief means that Iran will have more revenue to pursue regional activities that the U.S. is concerned about.
  • Sanctions are blunt instruments. But without them, the U.S. would have fewer tools for deterring Iran, making direct intervention by the U.S. in regional conflicts more likely.
  • Iranian and U.S. interests diverge on many issues, so a huge breakthrough in relations after a deal is unlikely.

Howard Berman 
Former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (D-CA, 1983-2013)
Senior Advisor, Covington & Burling LLP 

  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statements in recent days about sanctions relief and not granting inspectors access to military sites suggest he is thinking about an agreement very different from one that the world’s six major powers could sign.
  • Tension exists between elements of the Revolutionary Guards and hardliners, on the one hand, and President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the other. So a lot depends on the Supreme Leader’s position.
  • At first, Congress instinctively opposed a deal with Iran, especially one that would not dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.  The agreement worked out between Senator Bob Corker, Senator Benjamin Cardin and the White House, however, has changed the political equation in Washington.
  • The new legislation, which is awaiting final congressional approval, would forestall any further action related to a nuclear agreement with Iran until a deal  is finalized. In the event Congress votes to prevent implementation, two-thirds of both houses would be needed to override the president’s veto.
  • A key question for Congress will be, is this deal the least-worst option? If one third of the Senate and one third of the House of Representatives think so, then the deal would go into effect.
  • The sanctions effort that brought the international community together was about Iran’s nuclear program. Bringing other issues into these talks could risk losing the support of the international community.
  • A nuclear deal might create concern among U.S. allies, including Israel and the Gulf countries, which believe Iran has hegemonic interests.

To assess this period of pivotal diplomacy, the coalition of eight Washington policy organizations has previously hosted three other discussions.

More resources are available on The Iran Primer, USIP’s comprehensive website on Iran, which provides analysis by both American and Iranian scholars and is updated weekly.

Garrett Nada is a program specialist for Iran and Middle East programs at USIP.

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