The 24 November deadline for Iran and the P5+1, a group of six nations involved in diplomatic efforts since 2006 to attempt to find a resolution to issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme, in comparison to previous efforts, has potential to bring a solution to the issue which has long dominated Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. A combination of factors have contributed to the increase in likelihood of a positive outcome of talks including the election of the comparatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani, the developing crisis in neighbouring Iraq and the continuing impact of sanctions of the Iranian economy. However, whilst diplomacy is improving with both sides making a more conscious effort to thaw hostility, there are still several issues that remain unresolved and hurdles, such as rising geopolitical tensions, that need to be overcome before the deadline in little over two months’ time.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution marks the onset of decades of hostility between particularly Iran and the US with pressure from the latter lamenting on Iran’s relations with the rest of major global players. Preceding the Revolution, with Iran under the leadership of the Shah, the US and Iran enjoyed a friendly allegiance so much so that on New Year’s Eve 1978 President Carter stated “Under the Shah’s brilliant leadership Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the world. There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more.” However, the upheaval in the Iranian political structure led to a dramatic u-turn in the formally warm relations. The Revolution resulted in the ousting of the pro-US Shah who was replaced by anti-American Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who commonly referred to America as the “Great Satan”.
The reasons for the sudden change in attitude towards America are still debated. The1953 coup which involved the CIA was a rallying point for anti-American propaganda with the belief that the US were spying on the Revolution with the view to overthrow it and consolidate the Shah’s power, who by this point had become very unpopular. Khomeini also emphasised Iran’s desire to be an independent Islamic power which is a common perception of Iranians. In 2006, an Islamic basij volunteer statedthat the US “want a relationship with us [Iran] in the role of the sheep and them as the wolf” (source: Guardian). After the Shah was removed, he requested asylum in the US for treatment of terminal cancer. The Iranian Revolutionaries demanded the US returned the Shah to face trial and execution for crimes they claimed he committed during his reign. However, others believe that the development of hatred towards to America was in fact a ploy by Khomeini and Revolutionary leaders to create a scapegoat to consolidate power and increase support for pro-democratic groups.
Anti-American sentiment culminated in the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran by Iranian Revolutionary supporters on the 04 November 1979 resulting in 52 diplomats and civilians being taken hostage for 444 days. This overtly aggressive action led the US to implement the beginning of harsh economic sanctions on Iran and the ceasing of diplomatic relations.The US froze $12bn in Iranian assets, much of which Iran claims is still inaccessible. Preceding this, the US was Iran’s foremost political and economic ally. Whilst there are six nations involved in the negotiations, a unilateral agreement between the US and Iran is vital before any sort of resolution could even be considered.
Ironically, the US and Western Europe were initial key players in the development of Iran’s nuclear programme until the Revolution in 1979. In 2003 the US released a report claiming that Iran was undertaking a programme to develop nuclear weapons leading to investigations by the IAEA. Tehran responded to the criticism stating that it was forced into secrecy as the harsh restrictions had led to several nuclear contracts falling through. Whilst the UN Security Council demands that Iran suspend its enrichment programs on the pretence that evidence has emerged that before 2003 it was actively undertaking research looking into the development of nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders refuse claiming that it is a denial of its legal right to peaceful nuclear technology.
Whilst sanctions were initially retaliation to the hostage situation, they have developed into a method for global powers to attempt to control Iran’s nuclear capabilities and influence Tehran’s policies. Initial sanctions were expanded in 1995 to include firms dealing with the Iranian government which covered oil, gas, exports in refined petroleum products, petrochemical and dealings with the Iranian Republican Guards Corps. In 2012, the EU agreed to an oil embargo on Iran and froze assets of Iran’s central bank, whilst the US has now implemented an arms ban and near total economic embargo on the country. With the Iranian energy sector providing 80% of government revenue, the US’ aim is to try and isolate and economically cripple Iran into accepting nuclear terms. However, the US department of State’s official statement notes “In response to Iran’s continued illicit nuclear activities, the United States and other countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions to censure Iran and prevent its further progress in prohibited nuclear activities, as well as to persuade Tehran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program”. The sanctions emplaced on Iran remain the toughest that have ever been imposed on any country to date.
The announcement on the 29 August that the US was increasing restrictions could have been viewed as an inflammatory action that has the capability of destabilising the process. In what appeared a clear message that until a resolution is formally met there will be no alleviation of sanctions, the US penalised several Iranian and other foreign companies and banks for violating terms. The action was met with criticism by President Rouhani who claimed that they were “not compatible” with the spirt of ongoing negotiations.
Changing geopolitical tensions may have adverse effects on the potential resolution. The increasing hostility between Russia and the West whilst being involved in discussions has the potential for Iran to see an opportunity to negotiate with Russia as an ally and bypass the restrictions altogether. Russia is already one of the main investors in Iran.Furthermore, the historic alliance between the US and Israel and the hostility between Israel and Iran is also a contentious issue.Israel is lobbying the US against any Iranian deal that would allow them to retain potential bomb making facilities. Israeli strategic affairs minister Stienitz states “What Rouhani has done is concede on all kinds of secondary issues, partial concessions, but protected the project’s core, which is what threatens us and the whole world”, recognising that whilst Israel was absent from talks it would do its upmost to ensure Obama did not enter into an unfavourable deal.
The announcement on 05 September by the IAEA that Iran has made limited headway into its investigation could further delay the process. The watchdog announced that Iran had only implemented three out of five nuclear transparency steps by last month’s target which were outlined in preliminary discussions in November 2013. With the deadline fast approaching, Iran will now be hard pushed to ensure all five steps have been adequately met to reach IAEA standards.
Whilst changing global issues can be seen as having a negative impact on negotiations, the rise of ISIS as a threat to both the West and Iran is making it increasingly likely the nations may become more amenable towards one another. ISIS’ aim of creating a Shiite caliphate on Iran’s front door will be seen as catastrophic in Tehran. As a Sunni Muslim nation, the loss of a Shiite controlled neighbour could have great ramifications on its position in the Middle East as a whole. The threat to the West is clear and having Iran involved in its fight against ISIS would be of great strategic importance. To gain this ally in the region, the West needs to ensure that that they are not being short sighted in terms of the nuclear question and terms agreed do not have the potential for potentially catastrophic repercussions. However, Iran and the West have different perceptions of the ideal solution to the ISIS problem. Whilst the West want a stable nation in which it can have friendly, ongoing relations with, Iran would prefer a return of Iraq to a Shiite controlled country that can be easily controlled and enable Tehran to maintain dominance in the region.
The official discourse of Rouhani and his government is that sanctions have had minimal impact on the Iranian economy. However, the pressure has become more apparent with the intensification of sanctions since 2006. The value of the rial has plummeted since 2011, falling 10% in the days following the announcement by the EU of the oil embargo. The fall has resulted in imported goods being pushed even further out of the reach of many consumers. Price inflation is around 20% whilst unemployment stands at around 30% (source: Guardian). It is obvious that Tehran’s leadership are under increasing stress as the Iranian people feel the effects of the sanctions. If no resolution is found to end the economic hardship soon, political and social unrest may unfold as faith in the system is beginning to dwindle. Unfortunately for Rouhani and his government, the West remain resolved in the fact the only way sanctions will be lifted is if a resolution to issues surrounding the nuclear programme is found.
The election of Hassan Rouhaniin 2013 has also offered a glimmer of hope in finding an agreeable solution to both parties over the terms of nuclear discussions. Upon his election, Rouhani pledged his commitment to reducing tensions with the West and transparency over the nuclear programme. Since he has taken office, there has been a notable shift in the amenability of Iran to actively participate within discussions and implement the requests of the IAEA. There is an element of suspicion however that Rouhani made such comments in a bid to win votes by portraying an obligation to resolve economic grievances, which sanctions are at the heart of. Whether Tehran’s political stance has taken a legitimate turn towards cooperation with the West will be clear on the lead up to the 24 November deadline.
Developments over the next two months are crucial in determining whether Iran and P5+1 will resolve the nuclear question. Whilst there have been obvious setbacks in negotiations, including the IAEA announcement of the lack of implementation on the behalf of Iran and the enforcement of strict restrictions by the US, the situation is more favourable than at any point in the past. On 01 September, Iranian Foreign Minister JavadZarif said he remains “quite optimistic” the two sides can reach a deal following talks he held that day with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. A combination of the downturn in Iranian economy, the threat of ISIS, the election of the more moderate Rouhani are contributing to the plausibility of a solution. If this if not found by the 24 November deadline, for the first time it is looking feasible that at some point in the near future an end to hostility is no longer unachievable.