24 Nov 2014

Times may have changed for Iran – but US Republicans haven’t

Past the eleventh hour, past midnight, it’s still a race against time. By delaying a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme until next year, negotiators risk missing a real rather than a self-imposed deadline.

In January the Republican majority Senate takes over in Washington. Republicans and some right-wing Democrats, influenced by Israel and to some extent Saudi Arabia, would rather impose more sanctions on Iran than compromise. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” they say.

It’s an ideological, not a pragmatic position, aimed at scuppering any potential foreign policy success by President Obama and harking back to the Bush administration which cast the Islamic Republic as part of the “axis of evil”. It was this kind of thinking in 2003 that made the Americans reject an Iranian offer which in retrospect looks rather good – Iran had considerably fewer centrifuges then compared to 19,000 now.


Times have changed, but the Republicans haven’t. Under the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear programme, and US pressure will not force Iran to abandon it. The other parties negotiating alongside the Americans – the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – will not argue for a deal that denies Iran that right under international law. The aim is to curtail the Islamic Republic’s capacity to build a bomb by minimising, not preventing, access to nuclear technology.

The Republicans have undeclared allies in Tehran in the form of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the hardline enforcers of the Islamic republic, who gained economic and political owner under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As sanctions made it impossible to sell oil legally on the international market, the IRGC developed illegal networks and pocketed the profits. They don’t want to cede that money and influence to the reformist President Rouhani (pictured above), who hopes to consolidate his power by coming home with a deal that would ease the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranians.

It’s a truism of diplomacy that the first 95 per cent of a negotiation is relatively simple compared to the final 5 per cent. But for the negotiators in Vienna, preparing to reconvene in Oman next month, convincing each other to compromise may be easier than winning over their political adversaries back home.

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