As efforts quicken, Presidents Obama and Rowhani face challenges.
Media and political critics to the right of the president, alarmed by the sudden speed of negotiations over Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program, may try to slow, or stop, an accord.
Sure. But it’s happening in Tehran, too.
“We have our hard-liners; they have their hard-liners,” said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Slavin, whose nine trips to Iran include covering the August inauguration of Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s new president, said that there was a lot of “media noise.” “The media in Iran has been attacking the government for not revealing all the details of its negotiation proposal. And more recently there has been some more hard-line media outlets attacking Wendy Sherman, our chief negotiator.”
Mideast media critics of a deal aren’t limited to Tehran. In Jerusalem and Riyadh, they reflect Israeli and Saudi leaders who justifiably see Iran as an existential threat. And other regional leaders’ whispers about President Obama abandoning allies seem to be turning into a shout, too.
Here at home, a critical Congress and media may make the negotiations another partisan flashpoint.
Obama’s opponents “will try to fit this into the meme that they’ve tried to establish about the president that he’s weak, he’s dangerous and naïve,” Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, said in an interview. Cirincione, who was in Minneapolis last week to speak at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was also recently in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, and along with others in the foreign-policy establishment, dined with Rowhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.
Despite doubts among the theocracy that rules Iran, Rowhani has the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric calling the shots in Tehran, Cirincione said. In part this is because he’s part of the regime. In fact, not only is he not a Persian Nelson Mandela, he’s not an outsider like his presidential predecessors, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Khatami.
But Khamenei’s support has limits.
Referring to the theocracy’s thuggish enforcers, the Revolutionary Guard, who profit from smuggling, Cirincione said, “There are a lot of people on the right [in Iran], among the Revolutionary Guard, who did not want to see Rowhani on the ticket, which is why you will see statements in the Iranian press on what is a good deal and what is not. Rowhani expressed this explicitly. He said that there are those who benefit from continuing the conflict between our two nations, there and here. They benefit financially and benefit politically, so they have a vested interest in continuing the conflict. And that describes the Revolutionary Guard to a T. And it also describes the [U.S.] neoconservatives.”
In Iran, the dynamic driving diplomacy isn’t fissile, but fiscal. Severe sanctions brought Iran to the table.
“Rowhani’s mandate isn’t just from the electorate, but from the elite in Iran to fix the economy,” Cirincione said. “And in order to fix the economy, they have got to get relief from the sanctions. And in order to get relief from the sanctions, they have got to fix a deal.”
The sanctions’ success has led some in Congress to consider adding to them. The theory, it seems, is that more pain would gain even more concessions from the Iranians. But sanctions are a means, not an end. And Americans need to consider the alternative to diplomacy.
“There certainly is very little appetite for military action against Iran,” said Slavin. And indeed, some of the most vocal critics recently rejected the idea of authorizing what Secretary of State John Kerry said would have been an “unbelievably small” strike against Syria.
“But the danger comes from a group in Congress that wants to move forward with more sanctions legislation at this time, arguing that if the sanctions in place now have had an impact, that more sanctions would somehow have a good impact on these talks,” Slavin said. “But I think we are reaching the point of diminishing returns on sanctions, and this would be overkill, and actually hurt the negotiations going forward.”
In part, that’s because the negotiations and the sanctions regime aren’t bilateral, but involve several countries. And if the United States seems unwilling to negotiate, numerous nations and international institutions like the European Union and United Nations may disunite on the strategy.
“We’ve done an excellent job over the last five years of building the international support you need to make sanctions work,” Cirincione said. “The reason is that Obama was seen as willing to negotiate. In his inaugural address he extended the hand of friendship. Well, that tactic didn’t work to bring Iran to the table. But it sure worked to bring international partners to the table, including Russia and China.
“More importantly and ironically, if you refuse to negotiate with Iran, it will actually weaken the sanctions, because your partners will bolt.”
If they do, the United States may be left not just without a diplomatic deal but without the best tactic to provide leverage. And that leverage shouldn’t be just to talk, but to find a verifiable method to stop Iran from building a bomb.
“This is about a contract with enforceable provisions,” Cirincione said.
The stakes are high — and not just for negotiations with Iran, but also for concurrent diplomacy regarding Syria and the Israel-Palestine issue.
So expect the media and political pressure to be high, too — in Washington, Tehran and concerned capitals worldwide.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
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