The marathon nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers continue, while both sides are trying to keep their cards close to the chest in order to get to what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called a “just” deal. The intensity and complexity of the negotiations between Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers have sparked speculation that the accord on Iran’s nuclear ambitions will not be signed immediately, but only in a few days time. Under the new framework drawn up in Lausanne, Iran agrees to substantially scale down its nuclear activities to prevent any attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
In return, Tehran has asked for immediate relief vis-a-vis economic and financial sanctions that have suffocated the economy by decreasing Iran’s oil exports and its ability to earn foreign currency. But there are tougher issues to be resolved. Among these is the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear sites to ensure that Tehran indeed reduces its capacities.
However, the IAEA’s demand to visit Iran’s military bases has been rejected as a “red line” by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Also, with regard to the timing and sequencing of the lifting of sanctions, the Lausanne agreement is vague and subject to different interpretations. Iranian officials have repeated that their government will only accept a deal if world powers simultaneously lift all sanctions. “If there is no end to sanctions, there will not be an agreement,” President Hassan Rouhani had affirmed in April, echoing remarks made by Khamenei.
However, the Obama administration and the Europeans have invested enormous political capital in their Israeli and Saudi critics, by relying on tight sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy and forced Tehran to negotiate. Moreover, the Americans are trying to construct a nuclear deal that would give them the flexibility to reimpose limited sanctions without putting the whole process in danger. But tailoring limited sanctions is as difficult as knowing the right moment to lift them. One of the insurmountable obstacles would be the factional war in Iran’s domestic politics.
The final deal will certainly heighten political tensions within Iran, giving a political boost to Rouhani’s cabinet and the reformists in the 2016 parliamentary elections. But Khamenei has made sure to not give too much authority to Rouhani and his group ahead of the elections. Having the final say on all matters of state, the supreme leader ensures that no group — including the Revolutionary Guards and the ultra-conservatives — gains enough power to challenge the status quo. Almost ignored in this discussion, however, are the effects that a nuclear deal might have on the future of Iranian civil society. Specifically, how might a final agreement influence the prospect for civil liberties within the Islamic Republic? According to a recent report published by The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a high percentage of prominent Iranians representing different professions believe that the deal will have a positive impact on basic rights and freedoms inside Iran. More than two-thirds of the respondents feel that an agreement that results in the lifting of sanctions would improve the economic lot of ordinary people — and that once the sanctions are lifted, the public would be more focused on the need to improve civil liberties.
But what comes to most Iranians as a blessing is a malediction to others, among them Iran’s hawks and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Since early days, Iranian hawks have been criticising all forms of dialogue with the P5+1 and a pursuit of a policy of rapprochement with the West. Recently, the hardline journal Kayhan said in an editorial: “now, hardly anyone calls the Lausanne statement ‘a brilliant historic victory’.” But despite the attacks from Iranian hardliners, the wariness of hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv and the nervousness of the Saudis and their allies in the Persian Gulf, experts see positive prospects for the final nuclear agreement.
However, the awareness of a final, approaching deadline is accompanied by fears regarding the empowerment of Iran’s proxies and Shia militias in the Middle East. And, of course, there is the overarching question of Iran’s nuclear ambition itself. There is a gloomy warning about the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
So, even as the Iranians, Europeans and Americans put an end to the long odyssey of the nuclear talks, the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks. For many Iranians inside Iran, the nuclear agreement marks a new era in Iranian politics. But it goes without saying that its repercussions will be felt more strongly in the region than in Washington or Tehran.
Despite this historic agreement, to be achieved sooner or later, difficult times await Middle Eastern politics.
The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto