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The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran: What Does Ahmadi-Nejad's Victory Mean?

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as president this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran’s domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union. There are reasons for concern.

I. Overview

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as president this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran's domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union. There are reasons for concern. Based on his rhetoric, past performance, and the company he keeps, Ahmadi-Nejad appears a throwback to the revolution's early days: more ideological, less pragmatic, and anti- American. But for the West, and the U.S. in particular, to reach and act upon hasty conclusions would be wrong. Iran is governed by complex institutions and competing power centres that inherently favour continuity over change. More importantly, none of the fundamentals has changed: the regime is not about to collapse; it holds pivotal cards on Iraq and nuclear proliferation; and any chance of modifying its behaviour will come, if at all, through serious, coordinated EU and U.S. efforts to engage it.

Ideologically, Ahmadi-Nejad remains somewhat of a mystery, not so much because he conceals his beliefs as because they are strikingly abstract. His campaign utterances, much like his mayoral tenure, were dominated by lofty phrases about economic justice, Islam, national dignity and the need to protect the national interest against foreigners. Arguably the best indicator of his views are the positions of his allies -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the basij militia, and the Abadgaran movement, all of which have embraced socially conservative and internationally confrontational outlooks, and some of which have supported violent activity abroad.

But presidential change is unlikely to signify fundamental policy change. Ironically, the same U.S. observers who before the election argued a reform victory would make little difference because unelected officials make decisions, have been quick to express alarm at a threatened rightward turn. Given Iran's political system, earlier assessments ring truer. Domestic changes may come at the margins, not spectacular enough to provoke international opprobrium, albeit serious enough for those affected. On the foreign front, the style likely will be more confrontational and less appealing to Western audiences, and in the short run at least, Ahmadi-Nejad's surprise victory is likely to aggravate tensions with Washington and perhaps with Brussels. A diplomatic newcomer, Ahmadi-Nejad brings a less sophisticated approach than his predecessor; alone among the candidates, he did not broach improved relations with the U.S. during the campaign and, since his victory, has been at best indifferent about them. But bottom line positions -- on Iran's nuclear program, regional interests, Iraq policy -- almost certainly will not budge in the foreseeable future.

The new president is dismissive of the need to improve relations with the U.S., and his election strengthened those within the U.S. administration who have long believed engagement would only further entrench a hostile, undemocratic regime and who wish to pursue a strategy of "delegitimisation". But though both sides might take short-term comfort from continued estrangement, this posture is unsustainable. On at least two burning issues -- Iraq and the nuclear question -- the U.S. and Iran inexorably must engage, collide or both. While Iran has turned a page on the Khatami era, President Ahmadi-Nejad faces the same situation and President Bush the same dilemmas as before.

In short, and for all their flaws -- hundreds of candidates, including all women, were disqualified by an unelected body, and there were serious charges of irregularities --the election clarified some core realities of Iranian politics, with significant implications that the West cannot afford to ignore:

  • The current regime is not about to collapse, and any reform movement will need time to revive. In an election that by regional standards was competitive, had strong participation, and offered a broad choice, Iranians voted on the basis of economic rather than political needs. There is little doubt a vast majority wants genuine reform but at this point is more interested in its well-being, and Ahmadi-Nejad spoke to that issue best. In contrast, the reform movement is in disarray, unable to find a way to participate in the political system without ultimately being stymied and discredited by it. Reformers are disorganised, lack a strong leader, have a desultory eight-year record and are failing to connect with voters' everyday concerns. In other words, for all the dissatisfaction, the regime is not nearing collapse. For the U.S. to assume that popular anger will translate into an organised opposition and that the regime is ripe for a fall would be a risky gamble that virtually nothing in Iran appears to validate.
     
  • Serious, coordinated U.S.-EU engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue is required to avert a full-blown crisis or, at a minimum, genuinely test Tehran's intentions. Renewed Iranian threats to resume work at a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan are only the latest indication that the current process is not working. More creative proposals -- allowing Iran to operate a small enrichment capacity under strict international surveillance or joint Iranian/international management of nuclear sites -- should be put  on the table, along with discussion of Tehran's security concerns, before taking the uncertain step of Security Council  referral.
     
  • On Iraq, Washington eventually must have   a dialogue with Iran to maximise chances of stability. Even with enhanced regional cooperation, in particular from Tehran, the U.S. will continue to face a resilient insurgency and a tenuous Iraqi political process; without it, the tasks will be considerably more difficult.
     
  • Engagement by  the  U.S.  and  the  EU  does  not mean appeasement, and certainly not indifference to human rights abuses. A first test will be the status of Akbar Ganji, a political prisoner whose health has deteriorated dangerously as a result of a hunger strike. His release would constitute an important symbolic gesture by the Ahmadi-Nejad administration.

Tehran/Brussels, 4 August 2005

The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

Originally published in Arms Control Association

A change in U.S. administrations brought with it something rare in the often-acrimonious relationship between Washington and Tehran: a point of agreement. Nearly three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally exited the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), both sides concur on the need to restore core elements of the deal that have been sorely tested since: strict restrictions on and rigorous monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Yet, the shared strategic imperative of full mutual compliance remains out of reach so long as a tactical deadlock continues on how to achieve it.

An explanation of the convergence of U.S. and Iranian interest in reviving the 2015 agreement begins with a stocktaking of the state of play inherited by President Joe Biden in January 2021. Under Trump, the United States abandoned the JCPOA in favor of a “maximum pressure” strategy defined by a sweeping deployment of unilateral sanctions and a broad set of accompanying demands on further restricting Iran’s nuclear activity, halting its ballistic missile development, and containing its regional influence.[fn]“After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/defense/event/after-the-deal-new-iran-strategy.Hide Footnote The financial impact on Iran has been substantial, with the World Bank describing U.S. sanctions, along with the more recent global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on energy markets, as a “triple shock” on the country’s economy.[fn]The World Bank, “Iran Economic Monitor: Weathering the Triple-Shock,” Fall 2020, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/287811608721990695/pdf/Iran-Economic-Monitor-Weathering-the-Triple-Shock.pdf.Hide Footnote

If the Trump administration had hoped Tehran would bend to its will, however, it was mistaken. In mid-2019, Tehran launched a counterstrategy, dubbed “maximum resistance.” Rather than concede to the administration’s demands and to demonstrate that what it viewed as tantamount to an economic siege would not go unanswered, Iran retaliated against the United States and its regional allies directly and through local proxies in places such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. It also methodically breached its own obligations under the JCPOA on the contention that the evaporation of the financial benefits the deal had promised justified a reduction in its own compliance.

The cumulative impact of Iran’s JCPOA violations, which have escalated in line with a law the Iranian Parliament passed in December 2020 after the killing of a top nuclear scientist, allegedly by Israel, has been to substantially erode the agreement’s nonproliferation provisions in three different respects. The first relates to an expansion of uranium enrichment that cuts the timeline for producing one bomb’s worth of fissile material from a year to approximately three months; the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report pegs Tehran’s enriched uranium stockpile at 14 times the JCPOA cap of 202.8 kilograms and at an upper enrichment rate of 20 percent uranium-235 instead of the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal.[fn]International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015): Report by the Director-General,” GOV/2021/10, February 23, 2021.

The second concerns the verification and monitoring authorities of the IAEA, which under the nuclear deal is afforded JCPOA-specific transparency accesses, as well as access under the additional protocol to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran suspended these authorities in February, although IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi negotiated a three-month “bilateral technical understanding” to maintain key oversight capabilities.[fn]“Joint Statement by the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the AEOI and the Director General of the IAEA,” IAEA, February 21, 2021, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-the-vice-president-of-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-and-head-of-the-aeoi-and-the-director-general-of-the-iaea.Hide Footnote The agency is also set to press Iran on outstanding questions relating to past work at undeclared sites during technical discussions scheduled for this month. Finally, although the expansion of uranium enrichment can be undone and IAEA access fully restored, the third area of concern involves ongoing nuclear research and development activities on advanced centrifuges and uranium-metal production that deliver, as the three European JCPOA parties note, “irreversible knowledge gain.”[fn]For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote

The full article can be read on Arms Control Association's website 
5. For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote