If you’re asking whether “Iran” is serious about a deal, you may be asking the wrong question

I read a piece at a website called “War on the Rocks” by an Iran analyst named Afshon Ostovar, asking whether Iran is “serious about a deal.” It’s a pretty good piece, you should check it out, but I think it misses on a few points. The upshot is that Iran is probably serious about trying to cut a deal, but not (or not only) for the reason most people think, the desire to alleviate sanctions:

But sanctions aren’t the whole story. Several factors have combined to weaken Iran and cause a shift in its strategic calculus. The most significant challenges (outside of sanctions) facing Iran have been caused by the Arab Spring and its political and strategic reverberations in the Middle East. Iran has witnessed popular, pro-democracy uprisings—not unlike those that followed its 2009 presidential election—topple longstanding regimes with the support of Western powers. Iran’s closest ally, Bashar al-Assad, has been engulfed in a civil war fueled by outside financial and materiel support. In backing Assad, Iran has found itself fighting a war against both Syria’s Sunni population and their supporters, from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas—Iran’s erstwhile ally. This has magnified the already stark sectarian dimensions of Syria’s civil war and put Iran firmly in opposition to its Sunni neighbors.

This is a worthwhile point; while the economic challenges posed by the sanctions regime are the biggest factor influencing Iranian efforts to reach a nuclear deal, they are not the only factor. It would be absurd to think that the upper echelons of the Iranian government haven’t watched the “Arab Spring,” which began only two years after the Green Revolution had Iranian protesters chanting “Death to Khamenei” in the streets of Tehran, with trepidation, though at this point it’s not entirely clear that the Arab Spring has actually accomplished anything (but that’s a topic for another post). They probably are worried that they’re backing a losing horse in Assad, who has traditionally been their only reliable regional ally, although Assad again appears to be “winning” the civil war.

But Ostovar’s piece misses a crucial and relatively new element in Iran’s regional calculus: post-Saddam Iraq. Now that Iraq is more or less in the hands of its Shiʿi majority, it presents a far more attractive regional ally for Iran than Syria does, both from a strategic perspective and a historical/cultural one. Iraq has its own problems, to be sure, but it’s a country with a great potential for development as its oil production continues to come back online, and it’s a model of stability compared to Syria, a fragile dictatorship led by the minority Alawite community against the wishes of a large chunk of the majority Sunni community. The territory we know today as Iraq has historically been part of the greater Iranian world, going back to the days of ancient Persia. The religious and cultural affinities between the Shiʿi communities in Iran and Iraq are enormous, despite their Iranian-Arab ethnic differences. This is a natural alliance that Saddam prevented from taking hold, but with him out of the way it has developed rapidly.

Of course, allying with Iraq, a very smart strategic move for Iran, is going to demand that Iran change her geopolitical alignment. For all the natural affinities between the two countries, it’s unlikely that Iraq is going to turn her back on her ties to America and the West, and that means the Iraqi government is not going to be willing to be the conduit for Iranian aid to flow to Hezbollah or Hamas as Assad has been. Sure, they’ll allow overflights for Iranian fighters and materiel to flow into Syria, but for one thing they can probably get away with that without ruining their relationship with the US, and for another thing they have a natural interest in seeing Assad defeat his Sunni uprising, since his Sunni uprising and Iraq’s recent spate of terrorism share at least one thing in common. As long as Assad is fighting ISIS in Syria, Iraq will do whatever it can to help short of anything that would seriously anger America. But aiding Hezbollah or Hamas is probably a bridge too far for Maliki, who still wants American aid to deal with that domestic terrorism problem.

This means that an Iran that wants to cultivate an alliance with Iraq is probably going to have to do some things, like stop backing Hezbollah and Hamas, that will bring it into closer alignment with America anyway, and here we get to the second problem with Ostovar’s piece: defining what he means by “Iran.” There are three elements currently active in Iranian politics: the moderate-liberal, young, populist coalition that put Rouhani and his fellow technocrats back in power after 8 years of hard-line government under Ahmadinejad; the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which backed Ahmadinejad and pushes an aggressively anti-American and anti-Israeli agenda; and the clerical establishment under Khamenei, which is certainly more conservative than Rouhani’s coalition but is not as forcefully hard-line as the IRGC. Leaving the clerics aside, the two poles in this dynamic are the IRGC and Rouhani, and their priorities diverge considerably:

  • The IRGC has been engaging in its own foreign policy via its Quds Force, aiding Assad, getting involved in Iraq’s sectarian violence, and pushing support to Hezbollah/Hamas on its own initiative. They need Assad to stay in power so that the conduit to Lebanon and Gaza doesn’t close, and because Assad is a regional ally with whom they can continue to collaborate on their anti-America/anti-Israel program. They’ve also actually benefited from the sanctions regime, which has allowed IRGC-owned companies to operate with little foreign competition (although there is reason to believe that the sanctions are starting to squeeze the Guard’s pocketbooks as well as everybody else’s).
  • Rouhani, meanwhile, is mostly looking to capitalize on the wave that put him in office, to give the Iranian people what they want and avoid another Ahmadinejad-type winning the presidency on the back of public frustration and a weak economy. He needs the sanctions to go away for domestic political reasons as much as for the health of the national economy (if those two things can even be separated). If there’s a chance to break the IRGC’s hold on the Iranian economy and thereby weaken his biggest rivals in the Iranian system in the process, so much the better. I would suspect that Rouhani wouldn’t shed too many tears if Assad were removed from power; it would eliminate a major complication in his efforts to negotiate with the West and deal the Guard a blow.

Ostovar acknowledges that the Guard is a complicating factor but seems to think that Rouhani’s recent overtures to the West must mean that its leadership, at least, has bought in to the program. I’m not sure I buy that. The Quds Force was, as recently as two months ago, calling on its Iraqi assets to strike American targets there in retaliation for any American strike on Syria. More recently the Guard very publicly proclaimed that it would continue to use the phrase “Death to America” in its regular chanting or whatever it is they do. These are not the kinds of thing that help ease tensions or make Rouhani’s objectives easier to achieve. Furthermore, as Stephen Walt notes, both Rouhani and Khamenei have been publicly telling the IRGC to butt out of domestic politics and particularly the nuclear negotiations. This seems more like an organization that is being contained rather than one that is going along with the program of its own volition. We’re also getting into the potential divisions within the IRGC itself, where religious hardliners and those who continue to exploit the sanctions for economic gain may want to scuttle negotiations, while those who have begun to suffer because of the sanctions may be willing to see what kind of fruit Rouhani’s efforts will bear.

Actually, Khamenei may welcome the chance to undercut the IRGC; the Guard is looking more and more like the Ottoman Janissary Corps, which also began its existence as the regime’s crack shock troops before it embedded itself in the Ottoman economic system and became a highly regressive force operating under its own political and foreign policy agenda. Khamenei can’t massacre the Guard the way Mahmud II did with the Janissaries in 1826, but he can get public sentiment on his side (or get on the side of public sentiment, as the case may be) and box the Guard in politically. Certainly the Supreme Leader, who controls quite a bit of the Iranian economy in his own right, has to see the Guard’s economic activity as a potential threat to the authority of the clerics; if the Guard controls Iran’s military and economic might, then they’re really not under anybody’s authority not matter what the Iranian Constitution says.

Ostovar’s conclusion (and Walt’s) is that Iran is serious about a deal, and I agree, with the caveat that it’s Rouhani’s (and, at least for the time being, Khamenei’s) Iran that wants a deal. The Revolutionary Guard is a much tougher sell, and part of Rouhani’s rationale for pursuing negotiations and an alleviation of sanctions is a political one, to boost his popular support against the military and economic power of the IRGC. Iran’s willingness to negotiate isn’t just about the pain caused by the sanctions regime, but it’s also not just about external diplomacy or Iran’s standing in the region. Domestic Iranian politics are very much a part of this process.


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