April 22, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Why Phased Sanction Relief is So Hard For Iran to Swallow

Last week there was widespread optimism that a deal on Iran’s nuclear program was close. Now a less enthusiastic tone has emerged, especially from Western negotiators, and a key problem appears to be how much and how fast sanctions relief will come. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei added to the more somber mood on March 21 with a speech welcoming the Persian New Year and condemning the United States. Khamenei reiteratedhis frequent talking point—recently seconded by President Rouhani—that nuclear sanctions should be lifted “immediately” after an agreement is reached.

Khamenei’s position is (hopefully) a non-starter with the P5+1, but Iran still wants a deal. Why then, the sudden stall? Is the West tripping over a redline that Iran cannot relinquish, or is there room to maneuver? To be sure, the regime has successfully navigated several redlines in the negotiations already.

Take centrifuges. The Supreme Leader issued his own redlines this past fall about the quantities of centrifuges Iran must retain to enrich uranium sufficient for the country’s needs. He has stood firm against any reversal of Iran’s technical achievements, which could be seen as a humiliation. Khamenei and other senior leaders have not specifically referenced centrifuges in several months, however. The leadership has finally realized that the numbers do not matter as long as Iran is allowed the research and development space to make their existing nuclear infrastructure ever more efficient.

And then there is Iran’s continued stonewalling of the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) investigation of suspected nuclear weapons research activities at the Parchin military complex and other facilities. Most observers assume full disclosure at Parchin is a line Tehran will not cross. An admission that the program has not been entirely peaceful would publicly expose the Supreme Leader as misleading the Iranian people, and show his fatwa against nuclear weapons–if it exists at all–is meaningless. The US appears willing to cede this point. To facilitate the nuclear agreement the US may eventually allow the IAEA to close the case without reaching conclusive determinations.

Our original concession to Iran’s instance on its right to enrich uranium goes without saying.

The sanctions issue is different though. Transparency on their nuclear activities and restricting the capacity of their program are our objectives at the talks. Sanctions relief is Iran’s.

While there is debate about how dire Iran’s economy has become, the sanctions are very painful and prevent President Rouhani from making his much-needed domestic reforms. Iran also hates that the United Nations’ authorized sanctions legitimize international accusations against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Given how badly Iran wants the sanctions removed, why would Khamenei be unwilling to accept phased relief? Iran did not need Senator Tom Cotton’s letter to understand that a deal may only last through this administration. They already knew that. Khamenei believes the US will find any excuse to withhold future relief, including concocting supposed violations of the agreement. The Iranians may expect to breach the deal at some point and would want to minimize the consequences of getting caught. The question Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, President Rouhani, and Ayatollah Khamenei are likely discussing is whether they could live with the relief they get at the start of deal, since they never expect to see the conclusion of the process.

Iran may decide it cannot accept the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) offer the P5+1 is willing to provide. But will Iran leave the table over upfront sanctions removal? I think not. The situation Tehran has now—endless diplomacy and partial sanctions relief—is much preferable to the status quo ante. The Supreme Leader has too much skin in the game to simply walk away.

Immediate sanctions relief is a redline the ayatollah is willing to smudge.