United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Nuclear Issue: Why is Iran Negotiating?

            The Islamic Republic is under increasing domestic and international pressure to be more flexible on its nuclear program, according to according to a new report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Iran is scheduled to meet with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—the so-called P5+1—on February 26 in Kazakhstan.            
            The report argues that Tehran needs to be certain of a positive outcome from negotiations before committing to meet concerns over its nuclear program. The Islamic Republic’s leaders probably do not want to be blamed if talks fail. But chances for successful talks seem slim because the two sides’ positions have not fundamentally changed since the last round of talks in June 2012. The following are excerpts from the report co-authored by Bijan Khajehpour, Alireza Nader and Michael Adler.

The Impact of the Iranian Economy on Political Decisions
            …While there are initiatives to improve economic conditions, none of them are designed around a softening of the Iranian tone in nuclear negotiations. One reason may be that both the government as well as informal power centers are, in fact, benefitting from the current crisis.
            Indeed, Iranian officials can easily hide behind the sanctions and justify their own shortcomings, which are plenty. Furthermore, the status quo allows ambiguity and opaqueness in financial and commercial dealings, paving the way for corruption. From a political perspective, the pursuant crisis related to external pressure justifies a clampdown on all types of dissent and protest….
            Consequently, it would be a mistake to believe that continued economic pressure will compel Tehran to change its stance on the nuclear issue. It seems that Tehran’s calculus would only change if there is a new Western approach to the Iranian issue.
Khamenei’s Mounting Pressures
            Although he is Iran’s most powerful leader, Khamenei is nevertheless surrounded by rivals and enemies at home. The reformists who so brazenly challenged his regime in 2009 have been effectively pushed out from the corridors of power. But this does not mean they are inactive. The reformists want to contest the June 2013 presidential election, which they claim should be “fair and free.” (Khamenei has stated that the words “free election” are code for “sedition.”) More moderate conservatives, such as Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, are also keen to protect their interests and contain, or perhaps even reverse, Khamenei’s quest for absolute power. Both reformists and the Rafsanjani camp are anxious about Iran’s growing international isolation and its declining economy…
            Khamenei may very well lose face in future negotiations, but a characteristic of a sensible leader is a willingness to accept some defeats along with the victories. After all, it is the Islamic Republic that is in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and it must prove to the world that its activities are peaceful in nature. Khamenei’s mounting pressures may compel him to be more flexible on the nuclear program. Otherwise, he will face greater sanctions, more internal political opposition, and, possibly, the wrath of his own people.
Showdown for Iranian Talks
            The Iranians may be reluctant because they know that the situation when they meet again with the P5+1 will not be much different than it was last time, in Moscow in June 2012. And they do not want to be blamed if talks fail, as looks to be the case if the two sides’ positions have not changed. This could lead to even tougher sanctions. The United States and its negotiating partners—the United Kingdom, China, France, Germany, and Russia—have hardened, not softened, a proposal that Iran had already rejected in talks last year. The six major powers still insist that Iran cease 20 percent enrichment before it can get significant sanctions relief, and they have modified this demand to reflect Iran's increasing the number of centrifuges in Fordo.
            Iran, however, wants sanctions relief now. This is its main condition for any sort of opening deal. Iran is currently facing sanctions on its central bank and oil sales that appear to be increasingly effective. In 2012, the Iranian currency, the rial, lost half its value. Oil and gas revenues dropped 45 percent in the last nine months of 2012. U.S. officials feel these measures will only become more effective as the months go by and more time is needed.
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