Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A high-stakes gamble?

Failure of the nuclear negotiations between the West and Iran would be grim for all the parties involved, writes Shahir Shahidsaless

Al-Ahram Weekly

While many signs justify optimism about the Iran nuclear deal — the relentless efforts and determination of United States Secretary of State John Kerry, for example — there still remain a number of unresolved issues that may yet scuttle the prospects of a final accord.

Meanwhile, there are forces inside Iran and the US, as well as in the region, which vehemently oppose a nuclear deal. The following analysis seeks to answer the question of what might happen if the talks fail.

Since the death of the Iranian revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989, two major political currents have been competing within the Iranian nezam (establishment). These are the radical and revolutionary camp led by Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the moderate and pragmatic camp led by the former president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In addition, each of these schools has subcurrents. For example, the ultra-conservatives and hardliners who are categorically opposed to any negotiations with the US support the supreme leader, while the reformists, while not precisely in line with Rafsanjani, support his strategies.

Among the issues that divide the two currents, relations with the United States stand out. Khamenei believes that restoration of ties with America will accelerate the promotion of American values in Iran and consequently erode the ideological foundations of the system.

He also argues that official diplomatic relations between the two countries will facilitate the creation of covert links between the Americans and those who are prepared to cooperate with them to undermine the Iranian regime.

Moderates and pragmatists, meanwhile, maintain that no stable political system in Iran can be permanently hostile towards America, a superpower. It is in this context that the radicals view a nuclear deal as a potential threat. To them, a deal could pave the way towards normalisation of Iranian relations with the United States.

In a recent statement that was unprecedented in its tone, Imam Hussein University (IHU) accused the moderate camp of promoting “liberal literature” and being soft on what it described as US avarice. The university is known for being controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The statement threatened the moderate camp with “revolutionary confrontation.” Three days later, Khamenei, echoing and probably supporting the IHU statement, warned of a trend in the country that was trying to “present Imam Khomeini as a liberal.”

If a nuclear deal does materialise between Iran and the West, the two camps’ significant differences will not disappear. But a failure of the talks would result in drastic developments in Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his camp’s fate are tied to the outcome of the nuclear talks. A breakdown of the talks would mark the return of radical politics in Iran and the pattern of previous years in which Tehran would expand its nuclear programme and in turn be greeted with tougher US sanctions.

The best-case political scenario for Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, would be their being pushed to the sidelines. More likely, any failure of the talks would lead to the downfall of Zarif. Economically, the failure of the talks would result in a situation similar to that in 2012 when the toughest of the European and American sanctions hit Iran. The rial, the country’s currency, would be jolted from its already shaky foundations and lead to another explosion of inflation.

In addition, the system would be threatened on two fronts: externally, by military attacks from the Americans and Israelis, and internally, by social unrest spurred by rampant inflation. This situation would force further Iranian security measures, which would reverse the more open and less security conscious society Rouhani has sought to establish.

At the regional level, there would also be changes as the result of any failure in the nuclear talks. Since King Salman acceded to the Saudi throne in January, the Iranian-Saudi conflict has entered a new phase. While for years the rivalry between the two countries was defined by Cold War tactics, it has now become an open, though indirect, military confrontation in Syria and Yemen.

The new doctrine of US President Barack Obama to overcome the crises in the Middle East aims to end the tensions in the region and resolve its devastating conflicts. This “will require a broader dialogue and one that includes Iran and its GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] neighbours,” Obama has said.

If the nuclear talks fail and communication between Iran and America is halted, the likelihood of an escalation in Iranian-Saudi hostilities is high, given the growing unpredictability of the Saudis. In such an eventuality, proxy wars between the two countries would most likely intensify and risk dragging them into a direct military confrontation.

Meanwhile, the hidden competition between Iran and the US in Iraq could contribute to further destabilisation of that country. More importantly, Israel may view the newly hostile environment in the region as a golden opportunity to do the unthinkable: carry out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is now more likely than ever, given the recently revealed covert cooperation between the Israelis and Saudis to thwart Iran.

At the international level, should the talks collapse, the West, and in particular the US, could move to establish a de facto oil embargo on Iran. Despite the consequences of likely sanctions, disastrous as they might be, Iran is unlikely to surrender to Western pressure.

Ideological principles aside, Khamenei’s rationale is that submitting to coercion would open the door to more coercion and demands for concessions by the US. He argues that as soon as the US concludes that sanctions are working it will impose more sanctions in pursuit of its primary goal, toppling the regime in Iran.

For the US, this scenario would leave only military options to halt Iran’s nuclear programme. According to some credible reports, however, a military strike could at best set back the programme by no more than four years, increasing the likelihood of Iran becoming a nuclear state and likely destabilising the global economy. Costing many lives, a US military strike would likely result in unintended and unpredictable consequences.

A total breakdown of a nuclear deal would be grim for all the parties involved. That alone could be a strong motivator for all the parties to strike a deal. The present writer recently asked Kenneth Katzman, a US congressional Iran expert, about the likelihood of reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“I assess the likelihood of finalising the nuclear deal at about 80 per cent,” Katzman said. Asked if he thought a nuclear deal was possible by the June 30 deadline, he said, “Yes, I do.”

The writer is a political analyst writing on Iranian domestic and foreign affairs and co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.

add comment

  • follow us on