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Iran and US facing hard sell at home and abroad over nuclear deal

Both must convince domestic hardliners that the preliminary agreement is good for their respective countries, while Washington must also reassure its regional allies, writes Taimur Khan
Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, waves to well-wishers upon arrival at Tehran's Mehrabad airport on April 3, 2015. Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo
Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, waves to well-wishers upon arrival at Tehran's Mehrabad airport on April 3, 2015. Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo

NEW YORK // Iran and US-led world powers may have reached a framework deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, but both sides still face significant challenges in overcoming opposition from hardliners back home, while Washington must also win over its allies in the region.

The reward of any final deal, according to the US administration, would be an end to fears of a nuclear arms race and the nuclearisation of regional conflicts.

“If this framework leads to a final, comprehensive deal, it will make our country, our allies and our world safer,” said president Barack Obama following Thursday’s announcement of the unexpectedly detailed and rigorous preliminary agreement.

Some in the Obama administration hope that a deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme will also integrate Iran into the region and world community, with economic incentives that could lead to a de-escalation of its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the empowering of Iranian moderates. Ultimately, they hope, such a deal would lead to a stable security balance between long-isolated but regionally powerful Iran, and its former rivals.

To Washington’s long-time Arab allies and Israel, such hopes are dangerously misplaced, as they see Iran taking advantage of post-Arab Spring instability to upend the now contested regional balance of power. They fear that the deal will allow a newly unshackled Iran to dedicate even more resources to its strategy of regional expansion.

More worryingly for the allies, it could mark the beginning of a broader US-Iran rapprochement. Both Mr Obama and his Iranian counterparts insist that this is not the case, and Washington has taken recent steps to dispel its allies’ fears.

The preliminary framework agreed upon in the Swiss town of Lausanne on Thursday sets the terms within which a final deal will be negotiated before a temporary freeze on Iran’s enrichment activity in exchange for some sanctions relief expires on June 30.

Whatever shape any final accord takes – there is no guarantee that the talks will succeed by the deadline – it is sure to hold significant long-term implications for the region.

The framework set surprisingly tough conditions on Tehran – ones that are much stricter than Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had previously said he would accept – while still allowing Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to sell the deal to deeply sceptical hardliners. It does not dismantle existing nuclear facilities, including the previously covert Fordo site, and it allows Iran some capacity to enrich domestically.

But it does put in place major limits on Iran’s enrichment capabilities for 15 years and imposes the strictest inspections regime for any nuclear programme in the world for at least the next 20. It adds up, the United States claims, to a breakout time of at least a year to produce a nuclear weapon.

The deal would allow Iran to keep about 6,000 of its 20,000 enrichment centrifuges – more than the US initially wanted – but they will all be IR-1’s, Iran’s highly inefficient first-generation models that date to the 1970s. Iran will be allowed to continue “limited research and development”, according to a list of parameters provided by the US state department, and update them after a decade, but will not be allowed to enrich beyond 3.5 per cent – not enough for a weapon – for 15 years.

Along with invasive inspections, the framework also mandates that Iran signs the Non-Proliferation Treaty additional protocols which allow for surprise inspections of any facility.

US, EU and UN Security Council sanctions would be lifted in stages, as Iran meets its obligations, but could be reimposed if Tehran violates its commitments.

The phasing of sanctions relief will be a central bone of contention in the negotiations, and Mr Zarif, whose primary goal was to end all sanctions, has already criticised the US announcement on gradual sanctions relief.

For both the administrations in Washington and Tehran, the next phase of the process is selling the deal to domestic critics, and for the US, to deeply concerned allies.

Many in the US Congress have vowed to pass new sanctions on Iran – something that would most likely torpedo the talks – but the detailed framework agreement will make those efforts much more difficult. Getting enough Democrats to go against Mr Obama to overcome a sure presidential veto will be nearly impossible.

“Congress is not going to want to take responsibility for blowing up an agreement that’s supported by all the major powers in the world,” Gary Samore, executive director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and a critic of the negotiations, said earlier this week.

Despite the apparent backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Mr Rouhani may have a difficult time in convincing hardline lawmakers and clerics, as well as the Revolutionary Guards, that a deal is in their interests.

“Hostility toward the US has really become an inextricable part of the identity of the Islamic Republic, and it’s not easy to abandon that,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington.

He will have to balance the position of the powerful hardliners with the public’s longing for an end to economic sanctions and international isolation, he added.

“It seems that he either has to crush the spirit of tens of millions of euphoric Iranians, or he has to crush [Mr Khamenei’s] hardline base”, Mr Sadjadpour said. “It’s going to be hard for him to thread the needle.”

The most difficult task for Mr Obama will be in convincing his Arab allies and Israel that a deal with Iran will not undermine their long-term interests. He has already invited all six leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council to meet with him at Camp David this spring.

Saudi Arabia has signalled that it will pursue its own nuclear weapon if Iran is allowed to keep in place the necessary infrastructure to build a bomb, fuelling fears of a nuclear arms race. Riyadh also plans to pursue domestic nuclear energy, which could give it the expertise to eventually weaponise.

But convincing Riyadh and other Arab countries that the deal cuts off Iran’s path to the bomb may be the easiest aspect of Mr Obama’s task.

Saudi media has cautiously welcomed the preliminary agreement.

“It seems that Iran’s dream to acquire nuclear weapons dissipated in the Swiss city of Lausanne yesterday,” the Al Watan newspaper, owned by a branch of the ruling family, said in an editorial on Friday.

Many experts doubt that Iran would violate an agreement and rush to build a bomb, likely prompting Saudi Arabia to procure or build its own. This would erase Iran’s conventional military advantage. “Iranians I’ve talked to are precisely aware of this potential,” said George Perkovich, nuclear strategy expert and vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment. “They want to avoid the mistake the Indians made with the Pakistanis.”

The main concern of Washington’s Arab allies is that a deal which puts Iran on the path to integration will “shift the relative balance of power and US affinities”, Mr Perkovich said.

Iranian officials have dismissed any possibility of a rapprochement, and Mr Obama’s first phone call after the announcement on Thursday was to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, where he “emphasised that the nuclear understanding between the P5+1 and Iran will not in any way lessen US concern about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region”, the White House said.

The US has backed the Saudi-led operation against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, and Mr Obama also promised to deliver suspended military equipment to Egypt. Both moves are designed to reassure the US’ Gulf allies.

Despite such assurances, however, a nuclear deal will inevitably strengthen Iran economically, which will bolster its politically powerful military and its proxies across the region. The White House “has not really squared the drive for this nuclear deal with its regional impact”, said Steve Coll, a senior security fellow with the New America Foundation and the dean of Columbia journalism school, in a television interview. “The consequence of the deal is going to be potentially to empower Iran at a time when it is in a conflagration that is expansive … [and] runs against the grain of US goals.”

Despite the apparent strategic contradictions, some in the administration hope that a deal does lay the groundwork for normalising relations, and even perhaps a greater role for Iran in the US regional strategy, Mr Coll added.

But that would require political changes in Iran that will likely take decades. In the meantime, the immediate US goal is to avert the most dangerous outcome, not a grand realignment. “Fundamentally it’s about bounding dangers in the region,” Mr Perkovich said. “Taking nuclear proliferation off the agenda in the region and saying, ‘OK now everybody is going to compete, but at least it’s non-nuclear’.”


* With additional reporting from Reuters

Updated: April 4, 2015 04:00 AM