April 22, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Nuclear Framework Agreement Has Iran Smiling

It has been congratulations all around in Tehran since Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif returned home with a framework for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with the P5+1. There is no public reaction yet from Iran’s Supreme Leader, but two figures close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, interim Tehran Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, praised the deal and President Rouhani’s negotiating team. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani called the agreement a promising path to potential “economic prosperity,” and Head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Ali Jafari even expressed his support. The widely-feared blowback from hardliners has been irrelevant at best.

Why are Iran’s leaders so happy with the new framework of the agreement? The potential to finally lift sanctions is the most obvious reason. Just as importantly, the deal confirms Iran’s right to enrich uranium in the eyes of the international community, annuls the United Nations Security Council resolutions, allows for continued research and development, and keeps their nuclear facilities open. How Iran must resolve the International Atomic Energy Agency’s outstanding questions about its past nuclear weapons research also remains comfortably ambiguous. These are crucial points for selling the agreement, not only to the Iranian public, but to the leadership as a whole.

But the deal is not yet complete, or even fully defined. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lashed out on Twitter last Thursday, claiming the US State Department is misrepresenting the deal’s terms for sanctions relief. This is but the beginning of a long argument about what has been agreed upon and what will be included in any final deal. The version of the framework released by Zarif’s office claims all UN, EU, and US sanctions will be immediately revoked or removed upon implementation of a final deal, whereas the official P5+1 statement describes sequenced relief based upon verification of Iran fulfilling specified obligations.

Why such blatant discrepancy? First, the negotiating process is far from over. Over the next three months Iran will argue for an even better deal than the one outlined in Switzerland. Second, immediate—instead of phased and conditional—sanctions relief has been aconsistent redline for the Supreme Leader. Iranian negotiators know that is an impossible concession for the P5+1, however.

How is Iran planning to thread the needle? By this point the Supreme Leader has likely accepted he must compromise on sanctions timing. But, as I explained previously, Khamenei, Rouhani, and Zarif will need to walk back months of rhetoric to navigate a path around this problematic redline. Khamenei’s next speech should provide hints at how the regime will square all the conflicting language.

A more important question for Washington is what is Iran afraid of now? Foremost, Tehran does not want to lose a good deal, which is what President Rouhani and his team think they have. Iran will be carefully watching to see if the US administration can keep Congress from derailing this ‘grand bargain’ coming out of Switzerland. The Supreme Leader and Rouhani also worry congressional pressure could force the administration to make more demands, or prevent additional extensions past June.

As the battle between the US administration and Congress comes to a head in the next weeks, skeptics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere should recognize that Iran’s anxiety over losing this deal affords opportunities to extract more concessions. Tehran, on the other hand, will be hoping Obama can sell the deal as-is.