The roadblocks to a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, my piece for Foreign Policy in Focus

I’ve gotten a new piece published, this time at Foreign Policy in Focus, a foreign affairs thinktank affiliated with the Institute for Policy Studies. It looks at the many serious hindrances that still remain in reaching a full nuclear accord with Iran, but hopefully without being too pessimistic. A taste:

Even if the P5+1 and Iran are able to reach agreement on what an Iranian nuclear program should look like, this may not be enough to reach an agreement if the parties cannot agree on the conditions under which sanctions against Iran might be lifted. The Obama administration recently suggested that Iran’s ballistic missile program must also be discussed as part of the final settlement, a detail that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flatly rejected. Iran’s missile program was not part of the JPOA and is not included in ISIS’ proposed accord, and U.S. insistence on its inclusion would seem to risk scuttling the talks.

Then there are the external factors that affect the talks, including the domestic politics in the participating nations, especially in the United States and Iran. However, there is reason for some optimism here; American hardliners have recently lost a key fight over additional sanctions against Iran, and Iranian hardliners actually offered praise—albeit muted—for the JPOA, while President Rouhani has publicly urged those same hardliners not to interfere in the ongoing negotiations. Another potentially complicating factor in these negotiations is the political nature of the P5+1 itself; if those six nations are unable to agree internally, it would obviously threaten a final deal with Iran. This almost happened in November, when French insistence on a tougher deal nearly wrecked talks over what eventually became the JPOA. Conflicts between the United States, European Union, and Russia over Ukraine may make cohesion among the P5+1 even harder to achieve moving forward.

What I didn’t talk about is what comes after a deal is reached. Iran has considerable work to do in terms of cleaning up its human rights record, which would be the biggest disappointment of Rouhani’s term in office thus far if there had been any reason to believe that Rouhani would bring about positive change in this area. But the fact is that Rouhani had no mandate (bearing in mind that even though Iran elects its presidents, their “mandates” come from above, from the Supreme Leader, not from the people) to reform Iran’s human rights behavior; whatever his personal views may be, he was tasked with moderating Iran’s external relations specifically as regards the nuclear issue and sanctions, not its internal dynamics. Even at that, and to be fair to Rouhani, there are a few encouraging signs that Iran’s human rights situation could be improving, specifically in the area of press freedoms (UPDATE: on the other hand…).

Lousy human rights records aren’t, in and of themselves, enough to ostracize states from the international community–oh, hello Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, India, and Mexico–but Iran is already starting from basically square one in terms of establishing its place in the world, and there are powerful interests that are going to push any reason to keep Iran sidelined.  As to how you nudge Iran to improve its human rights performance, I think it’s got to be more “carrot” than “stick” unless you’re interested in wrecking any nuclear deal. Sanctions could certainly be part of the mix, but it’s going to be hard to say “hey, Iran, to thank you for making major concessions on your nuclear program we’re going to lift the harsh sanctions we had on your energy and banking interests…and then reimpose the same sanctions, but this time for a totally different reason! LOL!” without Iran immediately tearing up whatever nuclear deal we’ll have reached. I think you have to hope that, over time, an Iran that is no longer on the outside of the world looking in can open up enough to give Rouhani, or an even more reformist figure in the mold of Mohammad Khatami, the justification to push for broad change.

Where Iran will get more resistance, and again this is justifiable, is in terms of its support for bad actors elsewhere in the Middle East, specifically Hezbollah and Assad. There’s not much Rouhani or any Iranian president could do about this, since these policies are run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which answers to the Supreme Leader and nobody else. Still, if domestic Iranian politics is being defined by the ongoing tug of war between moderates/reformers and hardline clerics and IRGC bigwigs, then there’s hope that a nuclear deal and Iran’s reintegration into the global community will help give the moderates more power in that contest, which could lead to changes in Iran’s foreign policy beyond just the nuclear talks.


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