Has the best chance of an agreement on controlling Iran’s nuclear programme just passed by?
Political will for a deal is still there in Washington and Tehran, but its opponents will also gather their formidable forces. These include Republicans and many Democrats, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, France. The momentum towards an interim agreement that was building at the end of last week has been broken.
In Tehran President Hassan Rouhani has so far had a fairly easy ride because of his recent election and the support of the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But if he is seen as offering too many concessions on the nuclear programme and not getting enough back in terms of a relaxation of economic sanctions then he and his supporters become politically vulnerable. There are some signs that this is already happening.
The Reformists in Iran will also be vulnerable to allegations that they have given the impression that they are negotiating from weakness because economic sanctions are putting unsustainable pressure on Iran. If this argument was true then Israel, France and Saudi Arabia can argue that more time and more sanctions will make the Iranians willing to concede even more.
There is no doubt that sanctions do have a serious impact on the Iranian economy, but it does not necessarily follow that it will sacrifice its nuclear programme. The confrontational policy advocated much of the US Congress may, on the contrary decide Iran to build a nuclear weapon on the grounds that the international campaign against Iranian nuclear development is only one front in an overall plan to overthrow the system of government installed in Iran since the fall of the Shah in 1979. In other words, Iranian concessions on nuclear issues are not going to lead to an agreement, because the real objective is regime change.
On the other hand, the decision by President Obama not to launch airstrikes against Syria, Iran’s crucial Arab ally, after the use of chemical weapons on 21 August, has to a degree demilitarised the political atmosphere. This could go into reverse if Congress adds even tougher sanctions and threats of military action by Israel resume. Much will depend on how much political capital President Obama is willing spend to prevent prospects for a deal being extinguished by those who believe that confrontation with Iran works better than diplomacy.