Monday, April 27, 2015

Will A Nuclear Deal Bring The U.S. And Iran Together?

Intense contacts between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have now become routine. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

"What should I wear, now that we will be hanging out with the Americans?"

It's a joke that was making the rounds among Iranians after a framework nuclear deal with world powers was hammered out after lengthy negotiations in Switzerland. And it reflects the wish of many Iranians for a normalization of ties with the country their leaders have branded "the Great Satan."

But that wish is not likely to come true anytime soon.

Even in the event that a deal can be finalized, analysts and former diplomats don't expect a shift in the ties between the two countries that have exchanged accusations and threats for more than three decades.

John Limbert, a former diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, says that a nuclear deal would demonstrate, to both sides, that there's a better way of dealing with the relationship.

"A nuclear deal is not going to make the two countries friends," said Limbert, who was held hostage for more than a year after the embassy was stormed following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "It's not going to make us like each other, it's not going to make us trust each other, but it will show a different and more productive way of handling the relationship."

No-Contact Taboo Broken

Since the 1979 revolution, direct contact between senior officials of the two countries has been extremely rare. But, in recent months, intense bilateral talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have become routine. The directs contact follows a historic telephone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in September 2013 .

Former Iranian lawmaker Fatemeh Haghighatjoo says such interactions and, ultimately, a nuclear deal could help break down the wall of mistrust that has divided the long-time foes.

"Officials from the countries will gain a better [understanding] of each other," Haghghatjoo said.

Vali Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department foreign-policy expert, says the nuclear negotiations that have been going on for more than a year have already transformed relations between the two states.

"The taboo of no contact with the United States has been broken," Nasr said.

"They had never entered into a joint agreement that they both had signed," he said, noting that this barrier was crossed with the signing of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in November. Now, while the current framework agreement is not a signed document, "nevertheless both have endorsed it," Nasr added.

Nasr says that a comprehensive nuclear agreement does not necessarily point to a broader relationship. But he says that the achievement "would lay the basis for a potentially broader set of relationships and engagements in other spheres."

Regional Cooperation Or Continued Rivalry

A deal, some observers have argued, could embolden Iran to pursue a more aggressive regional role. The Islamic republic already has considerable influence in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and among Yemen's Shi'a. But the argument goes that it could invest more into its efforts in those countries if it were freed of crippling financial sanctions imposed over its nuclear activities.

Alireza Nader, a senior Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, says Iran's future regional policies will depend on which faction of the Iranian establishment will be strengthened by a nuclear deal: the moderates who believe that more openness and better ties and engagement with the world, including the United States, is the way to go, or ideology-driven hard-liners who see a rapprochement as being against their interests. 

"Iran could have more resources, but if it seeks to end its isolation and open its economy, then it might have to be less aggressive in the region, "Nader said.

Nader believes that if a nuclear deal were signed, then the U.S. and Iran could even explore "discrete areas of cooperation" in Afghanistan and Iraq where the two countries have common enemies: the Taliban and the Sunni militant group Islamic State (IS).

"We shouldn't have high expectations, but given Iran's aging leadership and the potential for change, a nuclear deal is a first promising step."

Despite the common interests, the United States and Iran have been also fighting for influence and power in the region where Washington's allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been also taking measures to counter Iran's influence.

A nuclear deal should open up the possibility of talking about other issues where the two sides share differences and common interests, says Limbert, who went on to serve as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

He recalls that when he was serving in the State Department just a few years ago, "when we talked about talking to the Iranians about Afghanistan, or Sunni-based extremism or narcotics, the answer was: 'We can't do that until we have some resolution of the nuclear issue.'"

Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University who served on the U.S. National Security Council, says the ice has been broken and both countries have indicated that they're willing to deal seriously with each other.

"That is a very hopeful thing," says Sick, while adding that he could see a day where the two countries could work together based on mutual interests.

"We do have a lot of serious issues to talk about," he says. "We're getting out of Afghanistan, that's a subject that's of great interest to us and to Iran about stability there. The whole question of fighting  [IS] -- Iran is doing it and we're at least indirectly supporting them in the process."

But, he adds, "If we were able to talk to each other and coordinate our activities -- that would be a huge plus."

Leaving The Door Open

Nasr believes that, for now, the two countries are likely to remain competitors. The opening to a relationship, he says, is not firm or big enough to lead to a strategic alignment.

"The U.S. will continue to be driven by the interests of its key allies and Iran will continue to be influenced by its belief that it needs to maintain its anti-American posture in order to achieve its goals in the region," Nasr predicts.

Ultimately it's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the last say in all state affairs in Iran, and, speaking in Tehran on April 9, he had serious concerns about the nuclear talks.

But he also appeared to leave the door open to future engagements should the two sides manage to reach a lasting nuclear deal.

"If the other side refrains from its normal devious actions, this experience can be continued on other issues," Khamenei said.

The Iranian leader added:" If we see that once again they repeat their devious actions, it will only strengthen our previous experience of not trusting America."

Announcing the nuclear framework agreement on April 2, Obama said that even if a deal is finalized, it will not end "the deep divisions and mistrust" between the two countries.

Obama said Washington's concerns will remain "with respect to Iranian behavior so long as Iran continues its sponsorship of terrorism, its support for proxies who destabilize the Middle East, its threats against America's friends and allies, like Israel."

Washington, Tehran Spin Framework Deal Different Ways

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Lausanne last month.

Golnaz Esfandiari

There are two sides to every story.

When it comes to the framework nuclear deal reached this month between world powers and Iran, there is the account provided by the United States, and there is the Iranian account.

Sanctions Relief

They differ slightly, including on the timing of the removal of sanctions imposed on Iran over its controversial nuclear activities. 

According to the fact sheet released by the United States shortly after the agreement was announced, "Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments."

But that is not the impression that Iran is working under. According to a statement issued by the Iranian media, Tehran believes the terms mean that all sanctions will be immediately removed after the implementation of a final deal:

"After the implementation of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action, all of the UN Security Council resolutions will be revoked, and all of the multilateral economic and financial sanctions by the EU and unilateral sanctions by the United States, including financial, banking, insurance, investment, and all related services in various fields including oil, gas, petrochemicals, and automobile manufacturing will immediately be annulled."

Centrifugal Argument

The U.S. fact sheet, meanwhile, states that "Iran will engage in limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges."

The word "limited" is notable absent from the paragraph in the Iranian statement that discusses Tehran's research activities.

"Based on the reached solutions, Iran will continue its research and development activities on advanced machines," that statement reads.
Inspections Questions

The Iranian statement says Iran will "voluntarily" implement the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows UN inspectors fast and unhindered access to nuclear facilities.

The U.S. fact sheet omits the adjective "voluntarily."

Between The Lines

Close observers of the nuclear negotiations attribute the language differences to the need for each side to sell the framework deal as a victory.

"It is natural that Washington and Tehran are emphasizing different elements of the agreement and spinning the parameters to demonstrate a win on their policy objectives," says Kelsey Davenport, director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association.

"Demonstrating the value domestically is vital to keeping hardline critics of the deal at bay in Washington and Tehran while the negotiations are ongoing," Davenport adds. "But nothing that has been said about framework in the United States and Iran is fundamentally contradictory." 

While the language of the detailed, four-page fact sheet released by the United States is mostly focused on limits on Iran's nuclear activities, the first paragraphs of the two-page Iranian statement emphasizes the kind of nuclear activities Iran would still be able to conduct if a final deal were reached.

Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says the discrepancies stem from the fact that each side is trying to portray the glass as half-full.

"The next three months will be difficult as the parties will have to address some thorny issues," he says. "But even on those issues, more progress has been made than they have divulged publicly."

He suggests that the most painful decisions "have already been made and the most daunting obstacles have been surmounted." Otherwise, he concludes, "announcing the framework agreement would have been political suicide."

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who was involved in the nuclear negotiations, acknowledged in comments to reporters at the White House on April 6 that there is a "different narrative" on the Lausanne agreement.

But he added that the narrative is not in conflict with what's written down, "just selective."

Speaking on April 4 on Iranian state television, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif criticized the United States over the released fact sheet, which he said was prepared before the talks concluded.

"The Americans put what they wanted in the fact sheet," Zarif was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

On April 7, the hardline Iranian Tasnim news agency quoted lawmaker Hossein Naqavi Hosseini as saying that Iran's Foreign Ministry would "soon" issue its own fact sheet.

Hosseini said Iran's top diplomat made the statement in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers during which he briefed them on the framework agreement reached in Lausanne. 

Iran's Revolutionary Guards Commander Supports Nuclear Agreement

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has expressed support for the nuclear framework agreement that was announced on April 2, clearing the way for a comprehensive deal that could curb Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

In comments published by Iranian news agencies, Mohammad Ali Jafari praised the Iranian nuclear negotiators and said that they had fought for the rights of the nation while respecting the red lines set by the establishment.

“With God’s grace, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have succeeded in their diplomatic battle to defend the rights of the Iranian competently,” said Jaafari.

He added that the Iranian nation and the IRGC are appreciative of the “honest” efforts and resistance of the Iranian nuclear team on red lines.

The comments are the latest endorsement of the tentative deal reached in Lausanne by figures within the Iranian establishment.

The chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Hassan Firouzabadi, endorsed the deal over the weekend and congratulated the Iranian nation over the success of nuclear talks.

Iranian media reported that majority of the conservative-dominated parliament have been positive about the outcome of the talks in Lausanne and said that Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his team had negotiated based on Iran’s national interests.The lawmakers were briefed on the talks and the deal in an April 7 closed-door meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has the last say in all state affairs has so far remained silent.

But Friday Prayers leaders, who receive their talking points from Khamenei’s office, have endorsed the tentative deal and expressed support for the negotiators.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Detained Iranian Opposition Leader ‘Very Happy’ About Nuclear Talks

Mehdi Karrubi has been under house arrest since 2011.

The son of opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi says his father is “very happy” about the course taken by Iranian President Hassan Rohani in nuclear negotiations with major powers aimed at finding a lasting agreement that would curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. 

Karrubi’s elder son, Hossein Karrubi, made the comments in an interview with the Iranian news site Ensafnews.

He said authorities had allowed him and his brothers to visit their father, who has been under house arrest since February 2011, for three hours on March 21 to mark the Iranian New Year. 

He said the visit, the first in four months, had taken place without the presence of security guards.

“Like the majority of society, [Mehdi] Karrubi is very happy about the course the government has taken in the nuclear negotiations by drawing a line over the wrong policies of the previous government,” Karrubi’s son was quoted as saying.

He added that his father, a former parliament speaker and defeated presidential candidate, wishes Iranian nuclear negotiators success.

Hossein Karrubi said his father is in good spirits despite the more than four years he’s spent under house arrest without being formally charged. Karrubi was reportedly transferred from a safe house to his own home last year, but remains under arrest.

Karrubi’s son criticized President Rohani for not paying attention to the plight of his father and fellow opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, who also remain under house arrest.

“Why is Rohani, as the head of [Iran’s] Supreme National Security Council, so inattentive to [those under house arrest]?” Hossein Karrubi asked.

“Two years into his presidency, shouldn't at least these meetings with their families take place naturally?”

When the more moderate Rohani came to power in 2013, many Iranians hoped that the three opposition figures could be freed.

A government spokesman suggested last year that Rohani is quietly pursuing their case. 

However, hard-liners who are in control of key institutions have publicly spoken against their release.

Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi were put under house arrest after their February 2011 call for a demonstration in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia attracted thousands of supporters.

Before their arrest, they had repeatedly accused the authorities of massive fraud in the 2009 reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad and postelection human rights abuses.

The three have reportedly refused to repent and said that they are ready for a public trial.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranians Exchange Jokes About Tentative Nuclear Deal

Tehran residents celebrate news of the potential nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers on April 2.

Jokes are circulating among fun-loving Iranians about the tentative nuclear agreement reached in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2.

Here are a few we received from Iran that highlight the high hopes and expectations many Iranians have from the deal, which could potentially lead to a nuclear agreement that would curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

"Inform people that the deal is only focused on the nuclear issue. Make sure they don't come to the streets wearing only their tops and shorts." (Women are forced to observe the Islamic hijab in Iran and men are not allowed to wear shorts in public.)

"I haven't been able to sleep since last night [when I heard the news about the deal]. I can't stop thinking about what I should be wearing now that we will be hanging out with America."

"Please lower your expectations. Since yesterday we've received reports that some applied for licenses to open casinos [gambling is banned in Iran]. Meanwhile a group of people have gone to the airport with flowers to welcome Dariush [a very popular singer who like many others left Iran because of the 1979 revolution]."

"What kind of deal is this? I went to the grocery store to buy whiskey, they didn't have any!" (Alcohol is banned in Iran)

"What kind of deal is this?! I saw two mullahs in the street!" (Clerics came to power after the 1979 revolution)

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranians Celebrate After Nuclear Agreement

Iranians celebrated the agreement on the streets of Tehran late on April 2.

Many Iranians celebrated publicly and privately the announcement of a preliminary agreement in Lausanne that could lead to a permanent nuclear deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Sanctions imposed on Iran have made life more difficult for ordinary Iranians who are hoping that a permanent nuclear deal will lead to a better economy, more work opportunities, and better ties with the world.

Amateur videos posted online and images by citizens and news agencies showed people honking and celebrating late into the night in Tehran.




Some celebrated at home.

Iranian journalists wrote on Twitter that in an unprecedented move, the state-controlled television had aired a live address by U.S. President Barack Obama on the announcement in Lausanne.

Several internet savvy Iranians decided to mark the occasion with selfies with Obama.

Amid the celebrations a young man in Tehran sounded cautious. 

"I will be happy when there will be a deal. Nothing is certain at this point. I'm a bit concerned [Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and his [hard-line] could somehow spoil this."

A mother of two, also in in the Iranian capital, told RFE/RL that a potential agreement between Iran and major world powers will not solve all of the country’s problems.

But she said it would lead to a better economic situation for many of those who are struggling to make ends meet.

“I have a good feeling about this. It gives me hope in the future," she said.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Journalist Seeks Asylum, Says Threatened By Revolutionary Guard

Payam Younesipour's colleagues, Milad Hojatoleslami and Hossein Javadi, were on their way to cover a soccer match in Spain when their Germanwings flight crashed in the French Alps.

An Iranian journalist says he has been forced to seek asylum in Austria after receiving threats from the Iranian authorities.

Payam Younesipour, the deputy editor of the sports daily Iran Varzeshi, had traveled to Austria to cover a sports event. He reportedly filed for political asylum on March 29.

Younesipour said he received threats from the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) after publicly blaming the IRGC for the death of his colleagues, who were on board the Germanwings plane that crashed last week.

Younesipour's colleagues, Milad Hojatoleslami and Hossein Javadi, were on their way to cover a soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona when their Germanwings flight crashed in the French Alps

Both young men worked for hard-line news outlets: Hojatoleslami was a reporter for Tasnim news agency, which is reportedly affiliated with the IRGC, while Javadi was a sports journalist with the Vatan-e-Emrooz daily.

Younesipour said the two had made the trip at their own expense, as their employers were not willing to back them financially.

Speaking to the Persian service of Deutsche Welle, Younesipour said: "I had a simple and logical criticism, why is it that a military organization with a huge state budget cannot buy a return trip for two of its reporters? They had to wait for two days before taking that flight." 

Younesipour said he had made the comments shortly after hearing about the death of his friends when he said he wasn't in a good psychological state.

The Guardian reported on March 25 that Younesipour himself and another journalist were supposed to be on that flight, but they had made last-minute changes to their plans.

In his interview with Deutsche Welle, Younesipour said the following his criticism he received threatening calls, text messages, and e-mails from "officials of the IRGC and military officials."

It wasn't clear from his comments whether the warnings had been made directly or through intermediaries.

He said the threats made him decide not to return to Tehran and remain in Austria. "They said, 'You have to repent, you have to say it to different news agencies,'" he said.

"The most important thing that really scared me was a text message from an old-time colleague who wrote: 'today we were in a meeting and I heard that the IRGC will be waiting for you at [Tehran's Imam Khomeini] airport,'" he added.

Younesipour said he was surprised by the sharp reaction over a "simple criticism" he had made in interviews with Persian-language media outside the country.

"The slightest criticism faces the harshest reactions in our country," he said. "I had only traveled to Austria to cover a game, now I'm facing a [situation] that I had never imagined."

Younesipour is the second Iranian journalist to seek political asylum in the West in recent days.

Last week, journalist Amir Hossein Motaqi, who campaigned for Iran's President Hassan Rohani, told RFE/RL that he decided to seek refuge in Switzerland.

Motaqi, who had traveled to Lausanne to cover the nuclear negotiations between Iran and major powers for an conservative Iranian news agency, claimed he had been hampered in his work by the Iranian authorities.

Some Iranian media reports said Motaqi had traveled to Switzerland with the sole purpose of seeking asylum

Iran confirmed on March 30 that Motaqi had defected while covering the talks. There has so far been no official comment on the defection of Younesipour.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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