The end of June 2015 is when the 5+1 powers are supposed to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. With just a few weeks to go it appears that serious issues remain unresolved. Resolution of the outstanding issues depends on a few actors in this political drama. U.S. President Barack Obama desperately wants to conclude a deal, which he believes will be his primary legacy in foreign affairs. The second U.S. actor is the U.S. Congress, dominated by the Republican opposition, which wants to insure that the deal with Iran has teeth that will guarantee that Iran does not continue to violate agreements – as it has done all along. The Congressional leadership wants inspections – not “guided tours” by the Iranians, which include military facilities and interviews with Iranian scientists.
Three figures are the main actors on the Iranian side: the decisive one however, and the final authority is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is trying to achieve a consensus with the two others: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, whose election was approved by the Ayatollah Khamenei, and was given the mission to end the international sanctions, which have crippled the Iranian economy. His future rests on his ability to do so, and he, like President Obama, desperately wants a deal to be consummated.
The third Iranian actor is made up of the hardline leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, alternatively called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as pasdaran. They are the protectors of the Islamic system and Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. The IRGC leadership is clear in its demands. An end to the sanctions without conceding anything in return, especially intrusive inspections, or lowering the number of centrifuges allowed spinning and producing nuclear fission. They simply want to have their “cake” and eat from its profits too!”
President Rouhani, through his chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has shown a degree of flexibility. Failure to achieve a favorable deal that would end the sanctions will undoubtedly have serious political consequences for Rouhani and Zarif. As for the Ayatollah Khamenei, he needs the support of the IRGC, but at the same time, he needs to satisfy the Iranian people’s dire need for sanctions relief and a boost to the economy.
The Iranian regime and especially the IRGC are committed to maintaining Bashar Assad in Syria, even at the cost of billions of dollars to the Iranian treasury. The IRGC is seeking hegemonic power in the region, through meddling in the Arabian Peninsula in support of the Houtis in Yemen, maintaining their influence in Iraq, as well as their arming of the Shiite militias, all of which is quite expensive. The IRGC provides Hezbollah in Lebanon with the most sophisticated weaponry, and an ever increasing budget. Hamas in Gaza is also enjoying the largesse of the IRGC. All of this is carried out with the consent and active approval of Ayatollah Khamenei.
According to Steven Heydemann, outgoing vice-president for applied research at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Iran provides “between $3.5 and $4 billion annually” to the regime of Bashar Assad. That, Heydamann said, does not include money Iran spends on supporting Hezbollah and other militias fighting Assad’s opponents in Syria. He estimates the total support from Iran for Assad would be between $15 and $20 billion annually.
The U.S. Congress is concerned that the deal being negotiated on with Iran would include the freeing up of nearly $150 billion being held in overseas banks as part of the sanctions relief for the Iranian regime having come to the table. If Iran currently spends $15-$20 billion on Syria with the limited resources they have access to at this time, how much more will be they be able to spend to support their other proxies in the Middle East once sanctions are lifted.
Khamenei’s objectives for Iran coincide with those of the IRGC. A report recently released by the Pentagon states that “Iran has not substantially changed its national security and military strategies over the past year. However, Tehran has adjusted its approach to achieve its enduring objectives by increasing its diplomatic outreach and decreasing its bellicose rhetoric.” In essence, Iran’s objectives are to preserve its Islamic system of governance, protect it from outside threats, attain economic prosperity, and establish Iran as the dominant regional power.
Khamenei conform to the IRGC objectives of preserving the Islamic system, protecting it from domestic and foreign threats, and establishing Iran as the hegemon in the region, while also adopting Rouhani’s objective of providing the Iranian people with economic prosperity. The way to accomplish this is by lifting the sanctions and inviting foreign investments into Iran. It is for this reason that the Islamic Republic has “decreased its bellicose rhetoric and increased its diplomatic outreach.”
The dilemma facing Khamenei is how to juggle these objectives without giving away what the P5+1 demand, and the IRGC is determined to prevent. That list includes intrusive inspections, limiting the number of centrifuges, extending the breakout time, and constraining Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb for at least ten years. Taqiyah, the Islamic holy act of lying, is an Iranian Shiite invention, and no one doubts that the Iranian regime will continue to cheat as they have consistently shown by their non-compliance with the IAEA. The Islamic Republic has surreptitiously developed its nuclear arsenal, while being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Iranians clever use of taqiyah and bazaar tactics are poised to overwhelm the western negotiators and, they hope, give them what they want out of this deal.
The threat of the U.S. Congress to re-impose the sanctions and the French insistence on intrusive inspections has forced Khamenei to pause. The New York Times reported on May 27, 2015, that,“ France challenged Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday over a disputed element of the Iranian nuclear talks, asserting that it would not sign the pact unless Iran allowed all its nuclear installations, including military sites, to be inspected.” The U.S. News and World Report revealed at the same time that, “ Congressional proponents of new sanctions against Iran argue that proposed penalties would only take effect if Tehran refuses to enter into an agreement or signs one then reneges on its commitments.”
Khamenei, in the meantime is non-committal with regards to the final agreement. On one hand he utters strong statements against western demands for inspection of military sites, reflecting his attempt to ward off opposition from the IRGC hardliners, who resent the entire process of negotiations with the West, and particularly with the U.S. Khamenei, speaking on state television said, “Everything done so far neither guarantees an agreement in principle nor its content, nor does it guarantee that the negotiations will continue to the end.”
While the IRGC may talk tough, these ideological hardliners are also managing lucrative multi-billion dollar businesses. The IRGC loyalty to the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader may in the end soften their stance on a deal with P5+1, especially if the Obama administration blinks first. Failure to reach a deal, and the continuation of the sanctions regime, would discourage investments in Iran. That will cause continued economic stagnation, high unemployment, growing inflation, and would make it harder for the regime to achieve hegemony in the region, and curtail its ability to support its terrorist allies as well as the Assad regime. Ultimately, the choice of consummating the nuclear deal rests with Ali Khamenei alone.
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