Iran accepted a compromise to save a regime under siege

Born in Teheran, Sanam Vakil describes herself as “a Middle East specialist and academic, providing political risk analysis on regional and geopolitical developments especially in Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf States, Syria and Egypt”. Her areas of expertise include “Iranian domestic and foreign policy, U.S and E.U relations in the Middle East, the challenge of Middle Eastern leadership, civil society development and the empowerment of women”. She gave me this interview for an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO following the historic deal reached between Iran and six world powers over its nuclear programme(Read more…)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva January 14, 2015. © Rick Wilking | Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva January 14, 2015.
© Rick Wilking | Reuters | Business Insider

As an Iranian who still has family in Iran how did you and they react to the news of this agreement? In several videos posted on the Internet we can see hundreds, if not thousands, of people genuinely celebrating in the streets of Teheran and other cities…

For Iranians it was like a breath of fresh air, after almost a decade of living in frustration, in a cloud of despair. Now, people feel that they have something to hope for. This does not translate into an immediate result but it gives people optimism, and this is very important.

We have been told since a long time that a majority of Iranians are very proud of their nuclear program and that they would never accept humiliating conditions in any negotiation. Is your opinion that this “framework agreement” pleases not only the people but also the regime’s hardliners?

I definitely think that we are gonna see different reactions from the various factions in the Iranian society, but the people are happy.

They have been suffering economically and the majority of the Iranian population is moderate and anxious for a better future, and a better future depends on a better interaction with the West.

Other segments of the society will remain in the opposition to this deal despite the fact that the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] gave it his blessing. We are going to see some opposition in the coming days, without a doubt.

It should be noted though that the Friday [Muslim] prayer leader [hand-picked to deliver the most important weekly sermon] endorsed the deal. [Ayatollah Emami Kashani said the nuclear agreement was a ‘victory’ for the Islamic Republic. ‘To be fair, the negotiating team is modest and wise and have followed the supreme leader’s advice on heroic flexibility. We much congratulate the president and Mr. (Foreign Minister) Mohammad Javad] Zarif.’]

There will be a kind of balanced act, but because one of the items that we have not yet enough information about is the sanctions relief and how this relief will take place. From the Iranian perspective, hardliners are going to criticise the agreement if there are no consequential concessions in terms of lifting the sanctions.

I think that it will be a gradual process. The first sanctions to be removed are the ones from the European Union. Iran is expecting that the EU-oil-related sanctions imposed two years ago will be lifted, along with the banking sanctions.

The [end of the] American sanctions will come towards the end, but the EU sanctions are easier to remove, and now that the European companies are eager to return to the Iranian markets, and this deal will facilitate that. And I suspect that Iranians are confident that the sanctions will be removed incrementally from June [30, 2015] to 2020.

The shadows of the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei (L), and of the founder of the Islamic Republica, Ayatollah KHomeini (R) still haunt the new President, Hassan Rouhani (C). © All Rights Reserved

Images of the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei (L), and of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini (R) behind the new President, Hassan Rouhani (C)
© All Rights Reserved

As you said, there are several Iranian factions not pleased with this deal. Many elements of the regime keep on benefiting from isolation. Mr. Karim Sadjadpour used a metaphor, comparing this deal to a “marriage engagement” warning that until and after the “wedding” ceremony, on 30th of June, many people (from Arab states to Israel) will never accept the advice of “forever hold your peace”, and will withstand criticism and hostility, making everything possible to derail this agreement… 

… Yes. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, has an important decision to make: Is he going to be with the population or is going to be with the hardliners? It is a difficult choice that he is facing.

Would this deal be possible without President Hassan Rouhani’s tireless efforts?

Probably not, because all historic agreements are dependent on timing but also on presidential individuals. So, definitely, the will and the motivation of Rouhani and [US President Barack] Obama were very important to reach this deal.

This time, there were too camps open to dialogue. In 2003 Mr. Mohammad Khatami in Iran was, allegedly, eager to accept a compromise, but in the U.S., Mr. George W. Bush was inebriated by an illusory military victory in Iraq and did not invest in an agreement…

… Absolutely yes! The role of presidential individual matters, but the circumstances are equally important. Iran is now suffocated by sanctions and under increased pressure to make a compromise. From the American perspective, obviously Barak Obama has invested an immense amount of capital in this negotiations, and it was a priority of his Administration to resolve the obstructions with Iran.

Did sanctions have a real impact to force the Iranian leadership into accepting this compromise?

Yes, the sanctions played an important part, while we cannot be quite certain about it. The Iranian revenues were decreasing significantly over the past two years and the oil income has dropped.

[Bloomberg reported that “revenues in 2012 to fifth from second in production among the 12 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries/OPEC. Iran pumped 2.78 million barrels a day in September 2014. (…) The nation holds oil reserves of 157 billion barrels and the world’s biggest deposits of natural gas, estimated at 1,192 trillion cubic feet. (…) Because of the recent decline in global prices – more than 20% since peaking in June at about $115 a barrel as supply -, according to President Hassan Rouhani, the country’s main source of income has been cut by some 30%”].

With oil prices falling Iran could not afford to sustain a very large population [78.5 million in 2014; the age group of 0-14 years claims 26.1% of the population, 69% is between 15 and 64, and only 4.9% is 65 or older], dependent on subsidies, government salaries and other things.

If the Iranian regime would want to survive it needs oil  [more specificallya break-even sales price of $143 a barrel this year/2015 to maintain its fiscal balance, according to data compiled by Bloomberg], otherwise it will be a regime under siege. There are a very young populations, education and with great aspirations. This deal was a pragmatic decision. But we still need to wait for the final deal.

Why is Ayatollah Khamenei apparently supporting Mr. Rouhani and did everything to torpedo the policies of Mr. Khatami?

Khatami’s election [first term 1997] was a big surprise and a real shock to the Iranian establishment. They [the conservative hardliners] didn’t expect him to win and saw the reformists as a national threat. Khatami was a President in the wrong time, but after the Green Movement that opposed and protested Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, in 2009, Khatami emerged as the consensus candidate, to repair the damages between the elite, the regime and the society.

The election of Rouhani was above all a form of repairing what went wrong. Khatami would never be able to do this, because he and his supporters at the time were considered as too radical and too unpredictable. The hardliners were not prepared for that.

Iranian revenues were obstructed in the past t2o years, oil income has declined, particularly since the prices have been falling. © All Rights Reserved

Iranian revenues were obstructed in the past two years, oil income has declined, particularly since the prices have been falling
© All Rights Reserved

Besides the sanctions, there is also a new regional reality: a new US-Iran “alliance” fighting the so-called “Islamic State” (Daesh) in Iraq and, at the same time, the old US-Saudi alliance fighting a war in Yemen. Did these circumstances which allegedly forced enemies to be allies have any influence on the Lausanne deal?

No, I don’t think so – not at all! We cannot expect that, suddenly, Iran is going to change its regional dynamics or that it will seek better relations with the United States in the Middle East. Iran is going to continue pursuing his own national interests in the region and try to advance those interests, separate from the [nuclear] deal.

That’s the problem and that is why the Gulf Arab states and also Egypt have contentious relations with Iran. Because they realize that Iran is not going to change its policies or regional ambitions towards some of its neighbours.

Is this one of the crucial problems of the deal?

Yes, absolutely! If we are looking into the future, Iran could play a larger role. It could have moderate the situation, particularly in Syria. But in order for Iran to do that, in order for Iran to participate, it seeks ultimately regional acceptance and regional relevance, something that some Arab states are not willing to provide.

They do not want to legitimize but marginalize Iran. And while Iran continues to be marginalized there will always be a sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu is also another regional actor not accepting the Iranian deal; he describes it as “a threat to Israel survival“…

…Yes, of course, without a doubt. It is not of Netanyahu’s interest to minimize the ‘Iranian threat’, right now. It is also not in the Saudis interest. Everybody is pursuing its national interests.

Was it a personal defeat for Netanyahu?

I think that he probably expected this deal.

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Abril 2, 2015. For him, the framework agreement with Iran was "historic" and could pave the way for a final deal, on June 30, that "would leave the world safer". © Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, on Abril 2, 2015. For him, the framework agreement reached with Iran in Lausanne was “historic” and could pave the way for a final deal, on June 30, that “would leave the world safer”
© Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP

Is there any possibility that Washington (which initiated the Iranian nuclear program under Shah’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) and Teheran will restore the good old links? Some analysts, such as Mr. Stephen Kinzer, in his book Reset Middle East, say that Iran would be a better ally than Saudi Arabia, a country that has been contributing to “terror in the name of God” by exporting its extremist and backward Wahhabi doctrine.

I think, maybe, that we are getting into a point that acceptance is possible. Obviously, Iranian history have been marked by a lot of mistakes, misjudgments and hostility, actually, towards the West. If we wonder why there are no diplomatic relations with the United States it is because Iran doesn’t want them.

That would damage the ideological credibility of the Iranian regime. It would be too fractious for the country. When you have two countries, two peoples, without a relationship for 36 years, it is a problem. It is not the same as six months. We need time to restore trust.

The lack of trust is mutual. The United States does not trust Iran and Iran does not trust the United States. This deal is important, but we cannot be overoptimistic and deluded with the prospect that America will have soon an embassy in Teheran.

Many conservatives in Iran and Republicans in the US are not ready for that either. Let us see if the deal will be concluded in June and if it can be fulfilled.

Iran and the West have first to prove their good will, two or three years, and then we can see what can be done towards the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria, for instance; what can be done to reduce sectarianism in the region; what can be done to put an end to the hostility towards Israel. We need time.

Did this “framework deal” surprise you, or were you expecting it?

I was very surprised by the level of compromise on the Iranian side. The substance of the agreement is really surprising! I think this is very positive. There is a big concession in what concerns the Natanz reactor, the closing of all nuclear facilities and in terms of inspections.

Why was this process so long and difficult?

Because this was not a negotiation only between Iran and the US: all the participants needed to accept all the specific proposals. There were bilateral and group meetings.

It required a lot of bilateral diplomacy even within the P5+1. France and the U.S. had to resolve their own differences. Russia had to come on board regarding the UN Security Council sanctions… It was not a negotiation involving only Iran but also the Western countries as well.

There were goodwill gestures as well. Mr. Obama tried to reach the Iranians with his Nowruz message. Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif used Twitter to improve the image of Iran. Both parties acted as if the negotiations were between business partners, not enemies…

… Yes. This all has to do with the dynamics of the negotiations since three years ago, first secretly and then behind the scenes.

It was important the empathy created by negotiators for the success of the deal, but also the commitment demonstrated by Mr. [John] Kerry and Mr. Zarif, who has spent more time together than any other foreign ministers.

According to some reports, Ayatollah Khamenei is very sick. Is there any risk that a change of leadership in Iran might derail what was achieved in Lausanne?

I don’t think so. I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me the future. If I have to bet, I think Ayatollah Khamenei is going to live at least until next year [2016], and I hope so, because he is very important to this deal. His support is instrumental.

Next year there will be elections to the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body responsible for selecting the Supreme Leader. Hopefully, he will survive until then.

[In the February 2016 elections, “hardliners suffered a serious setback”, Iran Primer reported. “Candidates aligned with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and current President Hassan Rouhani (…) won major gains. Senior clerics backed by reformists and centrists – but who are not necessarily reformists themselves – won 59 percent of seats. (…) They previously only held around 23 percent of the clerical body.”]
Iranians celebrate on a street in northern Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 2, 2015, after Iran's nuclear agreement with world powers in Lausanne, Switzerland. Iran and six world powers reached a preliminary nuclear agreement Thursday outlining commitments by both sides as they work for a comprehensive deal aiming at curbing nuclear activities Tehran could use to make weapons and providing sanctions relief for Iran © Ebrahim Noroozi | AP

Iranians celebrate in northern Tehran, on April 2, 2015, after a preliminary nuclear agreement with world powers in Lausanne (Switzerland)
© Ebrahim Noroozi | AP

Who are the potential successors?

I have no idea. Of course, I can give you some names of potencial candidates: it can be the head of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani; it could be Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi… But, of course, Rafsanjani has his own ideas.

He has been defending to change this position [of Supreme Leader] to the one of a council of clerics. We do not know what will happen in the future.

Are you optimistic?

Yes, I am optimistic!

Sanam Vakil © Direitos Reservados | All Rights Reserved

Sanam Vakil, Chatham House Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
© All Rights Reserved

Part of this interview, now updated, was included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on April 11, 2015

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