Why Rouhani Could Walk Away

Why Rouhani Could Walk Away

Six months ago, nuclear diplomacy with Iran almost seemed too big to fail. The dire consequences of diplomatic collapse — a return to a path toward war — were enough to get all parties involved to muster the political will to move toward a deal. But today, as talks resume in New York, even optimists recognize that the prospects are dimming for a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the West.

What’s lowering expectations isn’t just what’s taking place in the negotiating rooms. Just as Iran is a domestic political issue in the United States, the United States is not a mere foreign-policy matter in Iran. Nuclear talks with Washington are not just about whether Tehran can continue enriching uranium; they are about which domestic political faction will be at the helm of Iranian decision-making. Will it be the moderates like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who reject a zero-sum rivalry between Iran and the West? Or will the conservative establishment whose comfort zone is hostility toward the United States come out on top? 

Over the past few months, the talks in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 have gotten stuck on the details, primarily the number of centrifuges Iran operates and Iran’s ability to conduct nuclear research and development. Accepting limitations on these issues is hard for Rouhani to sell back home. Ultimately, he wants and needs a deal, but can’t afford one that will end his political career in Iran. In fact, when Rouhani and his team look to politics back home, they may start to believe that they can afford to allow the nuclear negotiations to fail.

Rouhani’s conservative opponents fear that a nuclear deal will pave the way for a major shift in Iran’s foreign-policy orientation and further push the conservatives away from Iran’s centers of power. Regardless of the deal’s contents, they are likely to oppose any contract with the West that reduces Iran’s number of centrifuges. If presented with an agreement that does that, they will portray it as a defeat at best and treason at worst. Their intent may not be to scuttle the agreement, but at a minimum, they would want to ensure that the deal becomes a political defeat for the Rouhani government. They may even secretly support the deal, while demonizing the negotiation to seal Rouhani’s political demise.

But these hard-liners face an uphill battle. The negotiations remain popular with the Iranian public, as recent polling shows. The Iranian public catapulted Rouhani to power in the 2013 elections — surprising the hard-liners, who had otherwise managed to sideline all of their political rivals. Public opinion could do the same with the nuclear talks, ensuring that sabotage efforts by the hard-liners fail to weaken Rouhani.

If Rouhani and his team come back from Vienna in November with a proposed nuclear agreement, a major debate will erupt in Iran, both within Iran’s political elite and the society at large. This will be the most vital decision the Islamic Republic has faced since the Iraq-Iran cease-fire proposal in 1988. Beyond the immediate impact on the balance of power between Rouhani and his conservative political rivals, the outcome of this episode will likely determine the crucial parliamentary elections in 2016 and, ultimately, the presidential elections in 2017, when Rouhani is up for re-election. The Iranian public will play an important role in this debate.

While all indications show that the public supports a deal, a new poll by the University of Maryland may shed light on the thinking behind Iran’s negotiating position, but also explain why the Rouhani government may think it can live with a no-deal scenario.

The poll shows that the Iranian public is resistant on two key matters: rolling back the number of operating centrifuges and limiting Iran’s ability to conduct nuclear research. Demands for strict limitations on these issues by the P5+1, the group of six world powers negotiating with Iran, would essentially be deal breakers for the Iranian public: 70 percent oppose dismantling half of Iran’s existing centrifuges and 75 percent oppose limits on Iran’s research activity.

The public’s position on these matters is likely rooted in both a long-standing narrative of the West seeking to keep Iran weak, dependent, and downtrodden by depriving it of access to advanced science, as well as the government’s own rhetoric about nuclear "red lines" on centrifuges and nuclear research. Regardless, the public’s position on these critical variables poses a major challenge for the Rouhani team. It’s not a coincidence that these are the very issues that have caused a deadlock in the talks.

If the final deal forces Iran to yield significantly on research and development and dismantle its centrifuges, hard-liners can turn the public against it and use it to bury the Rouhani team politically by accusing them of failing to uphold Iran’s sovereignty. The public is more likely to accept the hard-liners’ rejectionism in the face of such a deal. This is critical for Rouhani because his power base is not within any of Iran’s institutions. He is most responsive to the electorate that brought him to power in 2013.

Rather than return to Tehran with a deal they know will get rejected, potentially ending their political careers, Rouhani’s negotiators may opt to leave the talks without a deal at all and instead play the nationalist card: blaming the West for the collapse of the talks and declaring that while Tehran was ready for a deal, it could not accept one that violated Iranian sovereignty and rights. This is a far worse outcome for Tehran than a good deal, but several factors may cause the Rouhani team to believe it can survive walking away from the nuclear talks.

First, a deal that does not have public support is not likely to last. The risk of collapse down the road would be significant. The incentives to comply with the agreement must be stronger than the incentives to cheat. If the public doesn’t trust the deal, neither Rouhani’s government nor a future government will be able to adhere to it. As such, Rouhani and his allies would not be willing to spend political capital for a deal that would fall apart shortly after being signed.

Second, the Rouhani government appears to believe that the sanctions regime cannot be further ramped up — and may even collapse soon — regardless of whether or not a nuclear deal is reached. The last few months of diplomacy have simply taken the wind out of the sails of the sanctions proponents. Rebuilding the international will to intensify sanctions on Iran will be a tall order. Leaders in Europe and Asia hope that Iran will be open for business again soon, and the government in Tehran knows that.

Combined with geopolitical changes in the region and beyond — in particular, U.S.-Russia tensions and the rise of the Islamic State in neighboring Iraq — Tehran also believes the United States’ military options to strike a nuclear Iran are even more limited than they were in 2012. Washington cannot afford to be at war with the Islamic State, where Tehran’s help is needed (if covertly), while also being at war with Iran. This has given Rouhani’s team — and the hard-liners — more flexibility in their calculations.

Simply put, Iran can afford to say no to a deal that doesn’t meet its bottom line requirements.

Many in the West and in Iran are skeptical that the views of the Iranian public matter to policymakers. A former member of Iran’s parliament told me that, ultimately, Rouhani only needs to convince one person in order to make a deal work: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That may seem well known, but even the former MP also acknowledged that the supreme leader’s office itself conducts at least one public opinion poll a month. Rarely are these made public, yet the supreme leader’s office carefully studies them — as does the Iranian negotiating team.

As they look at these opinion polls, the policymakers in Tehran would do well to remember that the wheels of history are driven by mistakes and miscalculations as much as enlightened strategies.

Rouhani’s team will be committing a potentially irreversible mistake if they calculate that they can manage the consequences of diplomatic failure. As my colleague Reza Marashi and I recently argued, failure to secure a deal would not just continue the status quo between Iran and the West. The situation would deteriorate, with severe military, economic, and security consequences. And it may take another decade or two before the politics of Washington, Tehran, and the region align to give diplomacy a chance. Moreover, the volatility in the region means that geopolitical shifts that thus far may have benefited Iran can easily shift in the opposite direction.

Washington must proceed carefully, too. Even though public sentiment in Iran regarding centrifuge numbers and nuclear research may be a direct product of the government’s own domestic rhetoric, the public’s attitude may nevertheless paint the governing elite in a corner. Pressure from the West will not break this deadlock.