Key Questions

  • What has driven Iran to the negotiating table?
  • Is the Iranian government serious about negotiating an agreement?
  • Is Iran a rational actor?

. . .

What has driven Iran to the negotiating table?

  • To reverse biting sanctions, particularly on Iran’s oil and financial sectors.

    • Richard Haass (10/17/12): “The many financial and oil-related sanctions that have been implemented in recent months and years are starting to bite. They were designed not to impede Iran’s nuclear program directly, but rather to increase the price that Iran’s leaders must pay for pursuing their nuclear ambitions. The thinking (or, more accurately, the hope) was that Iran’s leadership, if forced to choose between regime survival and nuclear weapons, would choose the former.” 
    • Benjamin Netanyahu (10/1/13): “Tough sanctions have taken a big bite off the Iranian economy. Oil revenues have fallen. The currency has plummeted. Banks are hard-pressed to transfer money. So as a result, the regime is under intense pressure from the Iranian people to get the sanctions relieved or removed.”
    • Nicholas Burns (10/24/13): “The only reason Iran is at the negotiating table, after all, is the devastating impact that sanctions have had on its economy and currency. As a result, Iran is weakened, isolated, and on the defensive — further evidence that US leverage has worked.”

  • To offer just enough concessions to facilitate the collapse of the sanctions regime.

    • Gary Samore (11/14/13): “Optimists believe that the pressure of economic sanctions—which brought about the election of President Hassan Rouhani and Iran’s willingness to negotiate in the first place—may have already produced such a strategic shift. It’s more likely, however, that Iran is only offering tactical adjustments to slow or limit some elements of its nuclear program in hope of removing the sanctions without fundamentally sacrificing its long-term goal of acquiring nuclear weapons.” 
  • To undo the economic strain and international isolation of the previous administration.
    • Gary Sick (9/30/13): “During his presidency, Ahmadinejad not only inflamed international sentiment against Iran with his belligerent rhetoric, associating himself with ugly conspiratorial thinking that doubted the Holocaust and speculated that the United States itself was responsible for 9/11, but he also surrounded himself with ideologues whose nativist convictions far exceeded their experience in both domestic and international affairs, leading to his country’s acute isolation and a stifling regime of economic sanctions.”
    • Meir Javedanfar (8/3/13): “I think President Ahmadinejad’s distractive policies plus the isolation that they produced, plus the massive economic damage that Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement and sanctions produced put all together created such an economic problem for the Supreme Leader that he needed to allow Mr Rouhani to be elected."
    • Payam Mohseni (11/20/13): “Sanctions contributed to a transformation of the balance of power within the Iranian political system that had been already underway since 2009 – prior to the enactment of the current sanctions regime. Sanctions helped pave the way for a Rouhani victory in the 2013 presidential elections by perpetuating the divide within the conservative forces of the Iranian establishment over the economy. . . .The election – and not sanctions – was therefore the key to Iran’s shift on foreign policy and nuclear negotiations that we so strikingly see today."
    • Hossein Mousavian (11/19/13): “The idea that it is sanctions that have brought Tehran to the table is wrong. The real cause is the desire of new President Hassan Rouhani to reach a rapprochement with the US, the EU, its neighbors and other world powers, alongside the fact that the US red line has changed from ‘no enrichment of uranium’ to ‘no nuclear bomb.’”
  • To quell growing concerns that Iranians see the Islamic regime in Tehran as illegitimate.
    • Gary Sick (9/30/13): “In the thirty-four years since the Iranian revolution, the Islamic government has lost much of the legitimacy it once enjoyed among large swathes of the population. In recent years—and particularly since the large-scale street protests of 2009—Iran’s leadership has instead relied on repression to preserve its strength. The government’s poor economic management, in turn, has amplified the perception among many Iranians that the system is no longer working.”
    • Meir Javedanfar (June 2013): “The regime lost much legitimacy and support among the masses after the uprisings of 2009. By allowing Rowhani to win, Ayatollah Khamenei is trying to repair that damage. The recent uprisings in the Arab world, especially Syria, are bound to have made regime officials worried.”
  • To buy time while continuing to expand its nuclear program.
    • William Tobey (11/12/13): “Over the next few weeks the argument will play out over whether or not Iran has been pushed farther from a nuclear weapons capability, and whether sanctions relief would then be justified. This highly transactional approach would offer scant evidence of a strategic decision by Tehran to forego a nuclear weapons program in favor of a better relationship with the international community. It would, however, be consistent with a pattern of deals Tehran has sought to buy breathing space, while continuing to expand its nuclear program.”
    • John Bolton (9/29/13): “President Rouhani knows what his Western audience wants to hear. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-05, he followed the same playbook, and it worked. By offering what appeared to be concessions, Iran acquired precious time and legitimacy to overcome scientific and technical glitches in its nuclear-weapons program, particularly at Isfahan’s uranium-conversion facility. In articles and speeches, Mr. Rouhani boasted of his successes. In 2006, he taunted the West, saying ‘by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.’” 

Is the Iranian government serious about negotiating an agreement?

Analysis that would lead one to say YES

  • Rouhani has risked his presidency on reaching a deal that provides sanctions relief.
    • Kenneth Pollack (10/13/13): Rouhani’s decision to negotiate “is a gamble of monumental proportions.” It “gives credence to Rouhani’s own warning that he needs this deal soon, or else his presidency could be crippled by its failure.” If Rouhani “cannot demonstrate quickly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his hard-line rivals that he can secure meaningful compromises from the West, they will use his failure to curtail his room for further maneuver.”
    • Stephen Walt (9/20/13): “Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. . . . The supreme leader has also endorsed Rouhani’s position that the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stay out of political matters such as this one. . . . Paradoxically, the fact that they have to override hard-liners at home is evidence of their sincerity: Pushing the IRGC to the sidelines is a ‘costly signal’ that they are serious.” 
  • Rouhani has selected a negotiating team that is talented, serious, and clear-eyed.
    • Pierre Goldschmidt (11/2/13): “I find encouraging that President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Head of the AEOI Ali Akbar Salehi, all understand full well the mentalities of their negotiating counterparts and know what they can possibly agree on as well as what is impossible to expect from them.” 
  • Through a series of goodwill gestures, Rouhani’s government has actively attempted to create space for an agreement.
    • Stephen Walt (9/20/13): “Iran has also taken some more symbolic gestures, such as the release of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Rouhani’s public greeting to world Jewry on Rosh Hashanah, the implicit repudiation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust, and the condemnation of chemical weapons use in Syria. . . . Skeptics might deride all these developments as ‘cheap talk,’ but in the context of Iranian domestic politics, they are not without consequences. Among other things, these various gestures have made Rouhani & Co. more vulnerable to a hard-line backlash in the event that their more conciliatory approach leads nowhere.” 
  • Khamenei has publicly endorsed Rouhani and Zarif’s diplomatic efforts, making it harder to reverse course.
    • Ayatollah Khamenei (11/3/13): “No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers. They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work.” 
    • Stephen Walt (9/20/13): “Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show ‘heroic flexibility,’ thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran’s leaders to reverse course on a whim.” 
  • Even Iran’s hardliners appear more open to negotiations.
    • Ray Takeyh (10/14/13): Iran’s new Supreme National Security Council recognizes “the importance of offering confidence-building measures to an incredulous international community. . . . They are more open to dialogue than the Ahmadinejad government was.” 
    • Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji (11/12/13): “Many Iranian hard-liners are ready to accept a nuclear deal on the grounds that the West — especially Barack Obama — places so much importance on reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction that Iran’s human rights abuse and democracy deficit would be ignored in return for a deal.” 

Analysis that would lead one to say NO

  • Ayatollah Khamenei, a fierce critic of the United States and defender of the Islamic regime, remains the ultimate “decider-in-chief.”
    • Akbar Ganji (9/24/13): “Khamenei genuinely suspects that the United States and its allies want to hinder Iran’s independent scientific development. There are some things that Khamenei thinks an ‘Islamic civilization’ simply cannot compromise on, including the pursuit of independent technological progress, the division of gender roles in social life, and a commitment to public piety as a means of national solidarity.” 
  • The Supreme Leader has walked back claims of “heroic flexibility” to quell criticism from hardliners.
    • Ayatollah Khamenei (11/22/13): “We used heroic flexibility. Some interpreted it as quitting ideals and targets of the Islamic system. Also, some of the enemies made it a means to accuse the Islamic system of withdrawing its principles. These were not right. . . . Heroic flexibility means artistic maneuver to achieve the goal. It means that in any way and any case, in any kind of devotion, one who has devoted his life to God, in any kind of move and behavior toward various Islamic ideals, must use various methods to get to the aim.” 
  • Rouhani has deceived the United States in the past.
    • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister (10/1/13): “Rohani was also Iran's chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. He masterminded the strategy which enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing rhetoric. . . . Here’s what he said in his 2011 book about his time as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, and I quote: ‘While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan.’” 
  • A failed deal would add evidence to Khamenei’s assessment that the Americans cannot be trusted.
    • Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji (11/12/13): “In high-profile speeches, Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises — the same reasons he gave for walking away from the earlier nuclear deals.”

Is Iran a rational actor?

Analysis that would lead one to say YES

  • Iran’s concern about its security environment is understandable.
    • Fareed Zakaria (3/8/12): “An Iranian official once said to me, ‘But if we were to pursue a nuclear weapons program, would it be so irrational? Look at our neighborhood. Russia has nukes. India has nukes. Pakistan has nukes. China has nukes. And Israel has nukes. Then on one side of our border the United States has 100,000 troops in Iraq. . . . If you were in our position, wouldn’t that make you nervous and wouldn’t you want to buy some kind of insurance?’ That doesn’t sound like the talk of a mad, messianic regime official, but rather of one that’s looking at costs and benefits and calculating them.”
    • Alireza Nader (5/28/13): “Iran has a lot to be insecure about: It is a Shia and Persian-majority theocracy surrounded by hostile Sunni Arabs, which has recently watched the United States overrun unfriendly regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with relative ease. . . . As dangerous as it is, Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons makes logical sense.”
  • Iran has proceeded slowly and cautiously with its nuclear program to avoid triggering an Israeli or American military strike.
    • Amos Yadlin and Yoel Guzansky (April 2012): “Iran conducts an ongoing strategic assessment on whether and at what pace to advance its nuclear program. . . . Iran is not advancing toward the bomb at as rapid a pace as it could. It appears to realize that such progress would bring with it negative strategic repercussions.” 
    • Meir Dagan, former Mossad chief (3/11/12): “The regime in Iran is a very rational regime. . . . No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions. . . . And I think the Iranians at this point in time are going very careful in the project; they are not running in it.” 

Analysis that would lead one to say NO

  • Iran’s leadership is guided by fanaticism.
    • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister (9/15/12): “They put their zealotry above their survival. They have suicide bombers all over the place. I wouldn’t rely on their rationality. . . . Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism. It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today.”
  • If a perceived benefit accrues to individuals or factions inside Iran, this can undermine collective rationality.
    • Michael Singh (2/23/12): “Individuals in the regime face their own incentives—for example personal wealth generated in the black markets that sanctions give rise to—as well as disincentives—for example the possibility of ending up imprisoned or worse for too vocally bucking the regime's line.” 
    • Alan Kuperman (4/1/12): “One possibility is that the regime itself is rational but lacks full control, so that extremist factions act autonomously on occasion. Another is that domestic politics drive the regime to appease extremist factions from time to time. Or it’s possible that the regime’s own radical Islamist ideology sometimes overwhelms its rationality.” 
  • An insular regime in Tehran is unlikely to make fully rational decisions.
    • Michael Singh (2/23/12): “Decisions in Iran are made by one man—Ali Khamenei. By all accounts, he has not traveled outside Iran since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, is likely insulated by his aides from bad news or criticism, and depends on an increasingly narrow and homogenous power base which may not expose him to alternative opinions. One is unlikely to make a good decision if ill-informed or unaware of all the options.” 

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