Will the Real Iran Please Stand Up?

The nations negotiating to curb Iran’s nuclear research program are divided over strategy, including the intensity of inspections and the schedule for lifting sanctions. Iran is divided, too, explains Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. Iranian leaders are issuing conflicting messages, and negotiators with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany are left wondering about which are firm positions or negotiating ploys. “Some of the dissonance in Iranian views reflects its opaque nebulous competing power centers with layers of bureaucracy,” Manning explains, pointing to the supreme leader, the security forces, the president and legislature, the Council of Guardians, an Expediency Council, not to mention the public opinion of 77 million Iranians. “As the nuclear talks play out, the world has little inkling of the political wrangling going on beneath the surface in Iran.” – YaleGlobal

Will the Real Iran Please Stand Up?

Iranians are eager to end sanctions, but a divided bureaucracy could block deal to curb the nuclear program
Robert A. Manning
Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Who calls the shots? Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, meets with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, top; Ali Khamenei with commanders of powerful Revolutionary Guards

WASHINGTON: To call it cognitive dissonance would be oversimplification – all at once Iran tries a Washington Post reporter for spying, also known as journalism, and continues to fuel chaos in Yemen and fights for Assad in Syria while suave Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pens an op-ed in the New York Times saying, “…our constructive engagement extends far beyond nuclear negotiations,” and proposing regional security cooperation.

But Iran’s conflicting views start with the nuclear accord itself.   Even before talks on the final nuclear accord began, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, bluntly laid out conditions: All sanctions must be lifted the moment the deal is signed, and no inspections of military sites would be permitted. President Hassan Rouhani later softened that, noting that sanctions must be removed on the day the agreement is implemented. Both views flatly contradict the framework agreement released by the White House: Sanctions would be removed in stages as the agreement is implemented, and the International Atomic Energy Agency verification regime would allow for “challenge inspections” of suspect sites.

So which is the real Iran? On the nuclear accord, US diplomats will find out soon enough if the supreme leader has tied the hands of his negotiators or if Iranian pronouncements are bargaining tactics. Looming perhaps even larger than the many uncertain details of the nuclear framework agreement are uncertainties about the larger impact of any deal on the region and US-Iran relations.

There is no direct linkage between the nuclear accord and the many issues of US concern about Iran’s behavior in the region – from support for the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza or the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In an influential April 7th influential essay in The Wall Street Journal, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz cited this divorce of the nuclear deal from a regional strategy as one of its flaws.

The hope for a spillover effect leading to a change in Iranian behavior and a thaw in US-Iran relations is discernible the Obama administration’s body language. As Obama said, “If Iran seizes this opportunity, the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations.”

There may be some wishful thinking and hope that, over the 10- to 15-year duration of a final agreement, the lifting of sanctions and reintegration into the global economy will alter Iran’s behavior. Judging by the outpouring of joy in the streets across Iran when the framework agreement was announced, such a scenario cannot be dismissed. But any change in Iranian behavior is not inevitable and is not an assumption on which to base policy.

Revolutions tend to lose their fervor by the third generation. That may be true of the Iranian public, with 60 percent of 80 million citizens under age 30, but the regime has only modestly toned down its internal discipline and continues its activism in the region.

International sanctions have taken their toll. With access to banks and foreign investment cut off, Iran’s economy has been floundering, only growing an estimated 3 percent in 2014 after contracting 1.7 percent the previous year. Rouhani has altered disastrous economic policies with subsidies that reached 27 percent of GDP, and inflation soaring to 35 percent. But Iran still has a state- dominated economy, with Bonyads, or tax-exempt foundations, controlling 30 percent of the economy and serving as a major source of political patronage.

Removing sanctions and reintegrating Iran into the global economy would open the door to global finance and much-needed foreign investment in its oil and gas sector which would greatly boost the economy. Iran’s oil production has fallen from a high of 6 million barrels a day in 1980 to about 2.5 million barrels per day.

Some of the dissonance in Iranian views reflects the nebulous and competing power centers with layers of bureaucracy. While the supreme leader has the final say, Iran is a limited or authoritarian democracy, with candidates for president and the Majles, the Iranian legislature, screened by the Council of Guardians. The Council  – 12 jurists, half of whom are appointed by the supreme leader and half nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council and appointed by the Majles – is a check on the legislature, determining which laws are consistent with the constitution. There is an Expediency Council to arbitrate disputes between the parliament and the Council of Guardians.

Then there are several different national security forces, beginning with the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, created by Iran’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,  tasked with protecting the 1979 revolution. The IRGC, an autonomous power center, also controls much of economy through the Bonyads. In addition there is the Qods Force, an elite group in the IRGC that leads interventions abroad – from Hezbollah, fighting in Syria to support the Houthi in Yemen. There is also the regular army and the opaque Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

One key problem for the P5+1 – the UN Security Council’s permanent members,  the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France, plus Germany – is that the Iranians they negotiate with are not the Iranians active throughout the region or the ultimate decider, the supreme leader.

Moreover, for Iran, whose “Death to America” chants and hostility to the so-called Great Satan are a source of legitimacy for the regime, the talks are more than just a nuclear deal. For Iran it is also about national identity – will a regime reinforced by new economic vitality become more of a normal state or continue its Shia expansionism?

Regardless of any final nuclear deal, few expect Iran to become one or the other in the near term. But it’s difficult to see how reaching accord with the Great Satan won’t have an impact on how Iranians view and define themselves. And whether an accord leads Iran toward becoming more of a normal state and less inclined to expand its footprint in the region is an open question. It is worth noting that Iran’s foreign policy behavior has less direct impact on its competing power centers than domestic shifts. This may allow more flexibility for Iranian negotiators.

As the nuclear talks play out, the world has little inkling of the political wrangling going on beneath the surface in Iran. For the P5+1, the bottom line will be transparency, the ability of the IAEA to have confidence that its verification regime can monitor Iran’s fuel cycle activities and have the ability to detect cheating in a timely fashion. Whether and how the Iranian political system can attain enough of a consensus for the supreme leader to sign on to a nuclear accord the West is an uncertainty even for Iran’s leaders.  

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012. He is on Twitter:  @RManning4
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