Political Considerations of the Iran Deal

A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate report concluded that Iran had halted any research related to nuclear weapons in 2003. It categorically stated that this was a result of Iran’s cost-benefit approach.It further explained that should Iran be provided positive inducements such as ‘security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways’ conditional upon the Iranian elite’s perception of such inducements as credible, Tehran may be persuaded to refrain from any further research. This report lent logical support to the formation of the subsequent US foreign policy, especially within the context of the E3+3 (P5+1) negotiation with Iran.

While the report is correct to place the success of such an agreement on the conditionality of perceptions it is only partially correct on the assumptions of cost-benefit approach and woefully ignores the uncertainties that might arise as a result of a change in the administration in either Washington or Tehran and the eventual effect this might exert on the future of such an agreement. It also fails to critically evaluate the historical hardline communicative power of actions taken by both sides, in conveying their key positions, such as sanctions imposed by the US and the international community and Iranian attempts at undermining US hegemony in the region and possibility of an intractable continuity they might engender if the deal fails to fulfill its objectives.

The cost-benefit approach in Iranian politics is only associated with reformists and pragmatic conservatives such as Khatami and Rouhani respectively who, on the virtue of such an approach and the attempts at rapprochement with the West that it inevitably entails, often find themselves out of favour with the hardline clerics, especially Ayatollah Khamenei, who reserves the supreme right to block or allow such policies to come into effect.

The Iranian elite, notably the clerics and the Revolutionary Guards, have benefitted enormously from the sanctions and the reason is one part economic and two part ideology. The Revolutionary Guards dominate Iran’s economic landscape and are engaged in activities that range from construction of airports and oil and gas pipelines to telecommunications, apart from their traditional monopoly on security and defence issues. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of Article 44 of the Iranian constitution that offers the smokescreen of privatisation; the sanctions have enabled them to reap enormous economic benefits by removing domestic and international competition and charge high prices for their services. Guard-affiliated companies have benefitted from economic favours such as government loans and no-bid contracts; during his time President Ahmedinejad, a former Guard himself, diverted billions of dollars of state revenue to Guard-affiliated companies in these forms.

Another aspect of the Iranian economy are the ‘bonyads’ or charitable foundations created out of the expropriation of the Shah’s assets. They are often managed by clerics or high-ranking Guards and are estimated to constitute 33-40% of the Iranian economy. The Imam Reza Shrine Foundation, for example, is said to have earned billion through automobile manufacturing, real estate and agriculture.

The two part ideology argument circumscribes a security paradigm and a close affinity towards the norms model proposed by Sagan, wherein ‘nuclear symbolism’ acts as an instrument for the projection of national pride and self-identification as a formidable power. The shield of ambiguity surrounding Iran’s nuclear capability acted as a recessed deterrent against a possible military intervention by the US and its allies (fear that intervention would strengthen Iranian determination to acquire nuclear weapons in the longer run), while the normative implications, expressed in terms of national interest, security, and pride, of the program led to a legitimization of the same by Iranian elites through negative stereotypes of the West and sustained anti-western rhetoric.

Following this line of thought, every action that Iran has taken has served as a symbolic message or communication of its principled stand on the nuclear issue. The conservative factions of the elite have communicated their stance by subverting attempts at rapprochement as they were underway, notably by supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas or other regional actions.

When assessing reactions in Iran to the current JCPoA, its efficacy and when evaluating the deterrence value of the ‘snap back’ of sanctions, it is important to take into account the shifting allegiances, political affiliations and loyalties of various factions within Iranian politics. The elites, especially the Supreme Leader whose power supersedes that of the President, still have substantial control over the choice of the elected political leadership of Iran as evidenced through the disputed elections of 2009 which brought back Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for a second term and subsequently discredited him when he challenged the Supreme Leader in 2011. The state sponsored media was just as efficient in the latter as it was during the build up to the talks, when it also effectively managed the regime’s public relations in what could be perceived as a drastic change in policy when Iran crossed its self-imposed ‘red lines’ with the conclusion of the final agreement.

Iran’s leadership could effectively handle the politics of communication involved in rationalising the negotiations to the public within the revolutionary ideology because Iran’s press is largely state owned. The media associated with Khamenei largely evolved over two years from a hardline conservative stance reflecting the Leader’s ‘pessimism’ and his assumption that the talks were destined to fail because of his belief in the intractability of confrontation with the west. In the lead up and after the conclusion of negotiations Khamenei has skilfully handled the media by remaining largely non-committal, praising the negotiators on one hand while strongly reiterating his anti-western policy. This aura of ambiguity allows him to maintain the status quo at home so that he is not seen to be retracting his hardline stance by giving overt support to the deal. Meanwhile, US officials are leaving no stone unturned to sell the deal at home, the threat of US military intervention serves no practical purpose except demonstrating their underlying apprehensions, further complicating the domestic political scenario in Iran and marginalising the negotiating moderates at the expense of the hardliners.

It is not just the political scenarios in Iran that complicate the future of the agreement but also the possibility of a change of President in the United States next year. The nuclear issue with Iran had been high on President Obama’s agenda even as presidential candidate and has been the prime agenda point after he assumed office. A less sympathetic president with a more aggressive outlook could undermine the agreement and along with the credibility of the United States in the international arena.

The success of the agreement hinges on a multiplicity of variables, the actions taken and messages derived. It is worthwhile to note that the talks have progressed because an opportune moment presented itself with moderates on both sides of the negotiating table determined for the talks to succeed.

It remains to be seen how the agreement impacts regional strategic relationships there is an inherent and probably inevitable possibility of military and economic cooperation with Russia and China. Factoring in Russia’s desire for influence, China’s thirst for energy and US non-proliferation ambitions the agreement may yet ensure that Iran remains the center of competing interests of the world’s major powers. As the deal only stipulates a 15 year timeline regarding restrictions prohibiting the production of HEU and, a heavy water reactor ideal for plutonium production, limits to the enrichment of uranium, and tighter inspection procedures and verification of Iran’s nuclear program, the efficacy of a ‘snap back’ deterrent in the longer run will remain to be seen. The GCC’s support of the deal negotiated by the US in exchange for special-forces training, arms supply and intelligence sharing, attempts to stem the tide of a rising Iran, taking such rise contingent on the lifting of sanctions as granted. Only time will tell whether such diplomatic, political, and economic investment made by the US will pay off.


This is a submission from a NextGen Shaper. Opinions are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC.

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