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A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
Ayatollah Khamenei receives Iranian officials, ambassadors of Muslim countries, on 18 May 2015. khamenei.ir
Report 166 / Middle East & North Africa

Iran After the Nuclear Deal

Some in the West hope the nuclear deal with Iran will empower the country’s moderates. But playing Iranian domestic politics directly could backfire. The West should recognise that any change will be gradual, best supported by implementing the nuclear accord, resuming trade, and diplomacy that balances Iranian and Arab interests in the Middle East.

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Executive Summary

With the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers in force, a chief question is what it means for Iran. The clash between competing visions of the country’s future has heightened since the deal. Many, there and abroad, believe it could rebalance domestic politics. It not only has boosted the profile of those who promoted it, but, more fundamentally, it has opened space for new debates in a domestic sphere that was dominated by the nuclear issue for more than a decade. Yet, the political system, with its multiple power centres and tutelary bodies, inherently favours continuity. As its guardians try to quell the deal’s reverberations and preserve the balance of power, any attempt by Western countries to play politics within the Iranian system – for instance by trying to push it in a “moderate” direction – could well backfire. If world powers hope to progress on areas of concern and common interest, they must engage Iran as it is, not the Iran they wish to see. To start, all sides should fulfil their commitments under the nuclear deal.

The accord comes at a sensitive moment. Over eighteen months, three pivotal elections are scheduled. February 2016 will see polls for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, whose key mandate is to choose the next supreme leader; in June 2017, there will be a presidential poll. With the supreme leader aging, many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course. President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Tensions within the Islamic Republic stem in no small part from its blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Theocratic forces seek to maintain the dominance of the supreme leader and other tutelary bodies, while republican forces advocate more clout for popularly-elected institutions. Each camp is further split between pragmatists who seek incremental political evolution and radicals who either resist any change or promote revolutionary transformation. The supreme leader – powerful but not omnipotent – maintains stability by accommodating both theocratic and republican trends. But his affiliation with the former makes for a balancing act that is as complex as it is imperfect.

The precariousness of this equilibrium means that policy shifts when pressure from below is accompanied by substantial consensus at the top. The nuclear talks illustrate this. Rouhani’s election and the sanctions-battered public’s demand for normalcy catalysed the process, but the agreement was not a single man’s achievement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had endorsed bilateral negotiations with the U.S. before Rouhani ran for office. He then supported the new president’s diplomatic push and kept his opponents at bay. But given the leader’s aversion to risk, his support was qualified and did not obviate Rouhani’s need for a coalition with other power centres.

The president, who is from the republican camp, brought on board the most important allies: the pragmatic theocrats, who control the unelected institutions. Almost every powerful group had a say in the accord, which reflected a national, strategic decision to turn the page on the nuclear crisis even as concern remains over the world powers’ commitment. The establishment appears as determined to implement the deal as it was to seeing the negotiations through – and largely for the same reason: to resuscitate the economy by removing sanctions, either as envisioned in the accord or by showing that Iran is not to blame for failure.

Rouhani has encountered difficulties in other spheres. He was forced to freeze priorities behind which he could not generate sufficient consensus, including social and political liberalisation. But his economic agenda, aimed at stimulating growth after several years of recession, is likely to move forward, even though it damages entrenched interests that have profited under the sanctions regime.

Everything suggests Rouhani will continue with a prudent approach, and change is likely to be arduous, slow and modest. Though the U.S. and its European allies might nudge him to move faster, there is no way to speed the reform process and many ways to undermine it. Seeking to empower republicans – touted in certain quarters as a potential by-product of the nuclear deal – will not work, as many theocrats view that tactic as a stalking horse for regime change.

This does not mean giving Tehran carte blanche, domestically or regionally, but issues of concern will need to be addressed judiciously, taking account of Tehran’s legitimate concerns no less than its adversaries’. It also means Iranians – notwithstanding the imperfection of their governance system, which many are the first to acknowledge – should determine their country’s positions without undue external interference. Trying to shape Tehran’s regional calculus through a variety of carrots and sticks is standard foreign policy practice, but trying to shape or short-circuit the decision-making process itself is another matter. As seen in the nuclear deal and now in the economic realm, internal consensus, reached through a credible domestic process, is the only stable basis for progress.

The best option for Western states and Iran is to continue reversing the negative narratives from decades of suspicion and hostility by fully implementing the nuclear accord; creating discrete and non-politicised channels to address other issues of concern or common interest; and, eventually, pushing for regional security architecture that takes account of both Iranian and Arab interests. In the end, Iran and the West may not be able to agree on a range of issues, but trying to game the Iranian system will ensure that they will not.

Tehran/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 December 2015

Op-Ed / United States

A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN

Originally published in The Interpreter

After the United States experienced a rebuff at the United Nations last week – with almost the entire membership of the Security Council rejecting its attempt to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran – US officials warned that the dispute could lead to a major crisis in the Council, damaging the institution’s authority.

They are not alone in this analysis. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, a vocal critic of the US sanctions drive, has accused Washington of risking “a very serious scandal and rift” at the UN.

But these dire predictions may prove to be exaggerated.

The argument pivots on the US claim that, acting on the UN resolution that endorsed the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), it can demand the reactivation of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran that were terminated as part of the bargain. The negotiators of the deal agreed on a complex process to “snap back” these resolutions if Tehran broke its commitments and other dispute resolution mechanisms failed. (A recent International Crisis Group report looks at this process in detail.)

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US was triggering the snapback process on 20 August, most of other Council members responded dismissively, for the simple reason that the Trump administration quit the JCPOA unilaterally in 2018. While the US has made a legal case that it retains the standing to initiate snapback, even its European allies at the UN argue that it has forfeited its right to do so in practical terms. They suspect that the Trump administration’s real goal is to provoke Iran to renounce the JCPOA, and so kill the Obama-era deal.

While Pompeo was laying out the US case in New York, Britain, France and Germany – the European signatories of the JCPOA – released a statement rejecting the move. Overall, 13 of the 15 Council members have informed the Indonesian UN ambassador, the current president of the Council, that they did not believe the US had the standing to trigger snapback. The one member left in the US camp is the Dominican Republic.

What happens next? The Council has 30 days to debate the topic, but it is hard to see serious diplomacy taking place now. In theory, under the rules of the snapback process, if the Council does not agree to maintain the termination of the pre-2015 sanctions resolutions – which centre on military imports and exports, as well as individual travel restrictions and a total ban on uranium enrichment – they will come back into force on 20 September. While the US will claim that those conditions apply, and its allies in the Persian Gulf may support the notion, most of the wider UN membership will not.

This will lead to a surreal situation in which the US and other Council members talk past each other about what sanctions are in force. This scenario will create headaches for UN officials handling sanctions and the Middle East. But it is hard to say if it will cause a bigger crisis at the UN.

Some diplomats fret that the Trump administration, which has a track record of boycotting multilateral organisations that irritate it, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), could respond by trying to disrupt other Security Council business. Yet there are limits to how disruptive it can be before it starts harming US interests in other areas. It is hard to imagine, for example, the US breaking off talks with China and Russia over the sanctions regime on North Korea – on which the three powers grudgingly cooperate at the UN – out of spite over Iran.

The US could threaten to withhold funding to the UN secretariat’s political, peacekeeping and disarmament branches to demonstrate its dissatisfaction over Iran. The UN is already struggling financially, so such a move would make the long-suffering Secretary-General António Guterres’s life even more difficult. But it would also be a propaganda win for the Chinese and Russians, which will take every opportunity to use this crisis to argue the US cannot be trusted at the UN.

The snapback spat will doubtless hurt relations between the US and its European counterparts at the UN, but their cooperation has not been that great during the Trump presidency anyway. In July, the US blocked a German resolution calling for a new UN envoy to deal with climate change and security. This month, the Americans threatened to veto the continued deployment of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, a French priority, on the grounds that the Blue Helmets are soft on Hezbollah. Even the UK, usually the closest US ally in New York, has been frustrated by Washington’s failure to invest in UN diplomacy over Libya and Yemen.

While European diplomats expect the snapback debate to be messy, and speculate that Washington could also use tariffs and other economic measures to put pressure on those who oppose its efforts, the US has alienated its partners to such an extent that they appear willing to endure some additional unpleasantness. They might be warier if opinion polls suggested that Trump was on track for victory in this year’s presidential elections. But the Europeans for now seem more inclined to believe in a Biden victory, and thus see the main challenge as holding off Trump’s attack on the JCPOA until next year, when it may be possible to rebuild diplomacy over Iran with a new administration. If Trump wins, the JCPOA is dead anyway.

Some argue that the snapback debate will undermine the Security Council in other ways. The spectacle of council members bickering over sanctions on Iran could inspire some states to question the validity of other sanctions regimes. African governments have, for example, criticised council measures against countries like South Sudan that do not enjoy regional support, and could use the uncertainties over Iran to re-litigate these issues. But as the snapback mechanism is unique, the dispute offers little real ammunition for such arguments.

More fundamentally, this debacle raises longer-term doubts about the Council’s value as a venue for endorsing compromises among the big powers in an increasingly fragmented international system. The Iran deal’s negotiators believed that by embedding the agreement in a UN resolution they could better guarantee its implementation. If the Council cannot resolve its differences over snapback one way or another, the Council’s status as guarantor of such complex agreements will suffer.

Nonetheless, it is probably wise to see the snapback dispute as just one of the recurrent diplomatic breakdowns that have punctuated UN diplomacy on issues from the Balkans to Iraq and Syria since the end of the Cold War. Each time Council members hit an impasse, commentators hurry to say that the UN has reached a decisive or disastrous turning point. Yet time after time, Council members – and above all the Permanent 5 – manage to patch over their differences after a cooling-off period.

The Security Council may suffer a split over snapback, but it is unlikely to be terminal.