The Aspen Institute

Iran’s Nuclear Crisis: Domestic, Regional and International Pressures

Before the latest talks in Baghdad between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “P5+1” group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany), there were speculations that an agreement on the nuclear program was in the cards, given the constructive atmosphere since the restart of negotiations in April 2012. However, not only an imminent breakthrough failed to materialize, but only two days after the Baghdad talks, Iranian authorities denied the possibility they might accept to suspend 20% uranium enrichment.

In Moscow, on June 18-19, there will be a third round of nuclear negotiations after the talks held in Istanbul on April 14 and the ones in Baghdad on May 23-24. Both rounds in Istanbul and Baghdad were predictably inconclusive, given the amount of reciprocal distrust that has accumulated over the past few years between the two sides and the technicalities involved in any possible agreement.

Truth be told, the offer on the table from the P5+1, on the key issue of uranium enrichment, had not been framed in unequivocal terms: many in Tehran believed that a suspension of highly-enriched uranium could have been compensated not only with the shipment of uranium, but with the continuation of enrichment to 3.5-5% levels, in line with the NPT and finalized to enrichment for civil purposes. As it turned out, however, the offer only consisted of a revival of previous attempts to convince Iran to ship abroad its stockpiles of enriched uranium, offering in return fuel for its Tehran medical reactor, assistance with safety at all other reactors, and help to the country’s airline industry in acquiring spare parts. Iran was required to suspend all enrichment activities, contrary to the NPT framework, the terms of which were reiterated by the parts in Istanbul. Rather than a positive tit-for-tat, where in exchange for the suspension, all sanctions would be lifted, it was made clear that pressure would be eased only when Iran will take concrete steps to prove it does not seek nuclear weapons.

The timing of the next round of talks was chosen by accident: on July 1, new and tougher sanctions – barring the imports of Iranian oil into Europe as well as financial transactions with all Iranian banks – are scheduled to enter into force.

Interestingly, while on the surface critical factors revolve around the percentage of uranium enrichment, it is domestic elections in Iran, the United States and Israel that will shape the evolution of negotiations.

Iran has been a recurring theme in foreign policy debates during American presidential campaigns for the last three decades. The discourse has periodically shifted from containment to engagement, as was the case during the 2008 presidential campaign. From Obama as a candidate to Obama as President, the U-turn was visible and caught some by surprise. Constructive and appreciative of Iranian culture and society during his electoral campaign, confident that dialogue could break the impasse linked also to mistakes of the previous administration, once elected Obama strengthened coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis Tehran: sanctions have never been as tough and ‘biting’ as under his presidency. The President has become convinced that under the current circumstances a deal is almost impossible and is resorting to diplomacy in a last attempt to stave off an Israeli pre-emptive war before November.

Any deal is more likely to be reached after the American elections in November: foreign policy is hardly a sexy topic in the current political climate where retrenchment and downsizing seem to capture the mood of most Americans. If a deal were to be seriously discussed before the elections, it would likely regard only the nuclear issue, avoiding any mention of ‘grand bargains’. This is so partly because the geopolitical situation in the Middle East has changed and the US no longer considers Iran a potentially legitimate regional power, but aims at curtailing its influence and tame its ambitions. Today, Afghanistan and Iraq no longer represent a topic of common interest between Washington and Tehran, or when they do, the interests of the two sides rarely overlap. Moreover, also as a consequence of Iran’s decade of nuclear activities, any deal could be seen as insufficient to fully reassure Israel and placate its security concerns.

In Iran, President Ahmadinejad is moving into his last year in office and the ruling theocracy is closely watching for any signs of internal opposition resurging before next year's elections.

Ahmadinejad looks increasingly weakened at every new round of talks, as demonstrated by his inability to play a central role in the nuclear negotiations. "If the Westerners change their attitudes and pay respect to the Iranian nation, they will be treated respectfully by Iranians, in return," Ahmadinejad said recently during a tour of eastern Iran. "They should know that the Iranian nation will not take a single step back from its basic rights" - a clear reference to uranium enrichment. However, Ahmadinejad is isolated and does not represent any specific power center within the Iranian religious, political and economic establishment. In a last-ditch attempt to capture media attention, given his diminishing influence on foreign policy, Ahmadinejad undertook provocative actions, such as visiting - and delivering a speech - at the contested island of Abu Masa, being the first senior member of the Islamic Republic to do so. The dispute over the island, which strongly mirrors Iran’s nuclear program in terms of national sensitivity, provoked angry reactions from several Arab countries.

On the other hand, the Supreme Leader Khamenei has positioned himself at the heart of all matters related to Iranian security. The obvious intent is gaining legitimacy should there be a breakthrough in the nuclear crisis and take control and responsibility for all stages of the foreign policy-making process. Still, Khamenei badly needs to let off steam in a domestic situation that risks implosion, given the unprecedented political and economic isolation and rising factionalism. And while any deal for him would be better than nothing, he has to be able to sell the agreement to several domestic audiences, which, particularly in the case of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), have been heavily indoctrinated on the nuclear issue. For the IRGC, for example, nothing can and should stop Iran from its unalienable right to enrich uranium. A sign that Khamenei is attempting a delicate balancing act between striking a compromise with the West and maintaining domestic legitimacy is his March statement. In it, he stressed that acquiring nuclear weapons is un-Islamic, with a clear reference to his 2005 fatwa. Such declaration lends credit to the belief that reaching the threshold capability might be Tehran’s ultimate goal, which would address the Iranian leadership’s security concerns without violating the NPT.

The threshold, now even closer given the recent disclosures regarding the degree of enrichment reached at the Fordow plant (well beyond 20%), would not alleviate Israeli security concerns and might tip the balance in Israeli assessments over the costs and benefits of a military operation against nuclear sites in Iran.

Military calculations are not the only game in town in Israel. A tense political battle is being played out on the Iranian issue. On the one hand, Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to avoid early elections and now enjoys an ample majority, which includes the centrist party Kadima. Its leader, Shaul Mofaz, opposes the idea of unilateral action by Israel against Tehran. Former Mossad (secret services) and Shabak (domestic intelligence) chiefs Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin share this view and have called for Israeli leaders to act rationally and refrain from behaving in a “messianic” way. This came in response to remarks by Netanyahu comparing the Iranian threat to the Nazi one in the 1930s. However, despite the existence of prominent dissident voices against the military option, the coalition government actually strengthens the Israeli prime minister, who enjoys wide popularity and legitimacy.

In a three-player game, one defection will suffice to derail the process. In the current context, it is Tel Aviv, rather than Washington or Tehran, that might have the final word.