Iran: Is Bread Connected to the Nuclear Agreement?

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An Iranian couple takes photographs on the shore of the Chitgar lake in western Tehran on December 20, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Atta Kenare).

By: Elie Chalhoub

Published Thursday, January 16, 2014

In Iran, an organic connection exists between internal mobilization and the country’s performance on the regional and international levels. Tehran is showing extraordinary vitality. The past two decades were spent in political tumult, but today is an exceptional moment as the United States changes its approach toward the region, Iran in particular.

Iran has been sending out conflicting signals for a while, unleashing the imagination of some. They spoke about a "crisis" and "a sheikh who changed the face of Iran," meaning President Hassan Rouhani. He was even described as the "Sadat of Iran." This was all linked to the position of the United States and the unprecedented conversation between the two countries. But fundamentalist leaders are skeptical and want to confront these developments.

The situation cannot be understood without addressing the tactics used by Rouhani during elections. At the time, he announced his first endeavor: to improve the situation of Iranian citizens by stimulating the economy, maintaining that such a task could not be achieved without lifting the international sanctions against Iran. Lifting the sanctions would, of course, entail reaching a solution on the nuclear file, which could not happen without Iran opening up to the world and starting a dialogue with the United States. Thus, the new administration mixed daily bread with yellowcake, inflation with enrichment levels, and unemployment rates with its inventory of uranium. A family wanting to heat its home in the Iranian countryside would have to wait for negotiations with the 5+1 group (read: the United States).

Rouhani won, and his team, an odd mix of Reformists and state-builders, took power. The Geneva nuclear agreement, to which the new administration linked its fate, was achieved. Moreover, as soon as the nuclear file was moved from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the administration put all its eggs in Mohammed Javad Zarif's basket, who became the star. Isn't it remarkable that no one knows the names of the Iranian cabinet, except that of its foreign minister?

On the other hand, there is another faction in Iran, which takes care of essential files and uses a different logic. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other places, Iran is locked in fierce political and security battles. It is moving forward in some and achieving victories in others. However, none of those achievements are exploited politically on the regional and international levels. Such harmony existed during the days of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where any achievement on the field was used diplomatically. Today it is different. The administration, supposedly the political and diplomatic wing of the other faction, lives in a different world. This could explain media statements by someone like Revolutionary Guard Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari or head of al-Quds Force Qassem Soleimani.

This does not mean that Rouhani's tasks are different from Ahmadinejad's. The same files undertaken by Ahmadinejad in 2005 were transferred to Rouhani in 2013: the economy, the nuclear program, and the relationship with the United States. Until now, Rouhani has been completing what his predecessor began, especially in the last two files. He is merely reaping what Ahmadinejad sowed.

On the level of dialogue with the United States, Ahmadinejad opened the lines of communication in the first months of his first term. He carried out a prolonged dialogue with the George W. Bush administration, represented by his brother-in-law Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, through the chairman of the American-Iranian Council, Hooshang Amirahmadi.

The dialogue reached an advanced stage and almost succeeded in achieving two breakthroughs: direct flights between Iran and the United States, and Iranian consular representation in the United States. However, several factors thwarted the dialogue, primarily Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denial. But Washington was not ready either, at the time, for outcomes of this kind, since it was still betting on its ability to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran.

Even at the level of the nuclear program, some might be surprised to know that the Geneva accord, celebrated by the world today, was reached (in content) by the Ahmadinejad administration two years before the end of his second term. What prevented it at the time was Barack Obama's administration backtracking and refusal to sign it. The Obama administration knew that such an agreement would effectively lead to lifting the sanctions against Iran, and it would then lose the stick used against the Islamic Republic.

The divergences between the two factions in Iranian politics do not extend to the content of the Geneva agreement, which could not have happened without the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This is evident in the content of the agreement reached at the height of fundamentalist rule. Ultimately, Iran does not need this amount of uranium enriched by 20 percent. It only started enriching, because the West refused to give it the nuclear fuel needed by Tehran's medical reactor. The only item that could be explained negatively in Iran is the one dictating that future enrichment should be agreed upon by the two sides, Iran and the 5+1 group. But even this item would not be a problem, according to concerned officials; Iran will not ask to enrich more uranium than it needs.

Terms of Dispute: Prospects, Approaches, and Utilization

Rouhani's team seems more optimistic than the other team with regard to US negotiations reaching a happy ending. Rouhani’s team built its whole negotiation strategy on this optimism, basing it on the idea that Uncle Sam did not have a fundamental problem with Iran, but Iran was the one who had the problem with the United States. Thus, merely opening up and sitting at one table would remove all doubts between the two parties and solve outstanding issues.

The Rouhani administration is betting everything on the Geneva agreement, making it more flexible and more susceptible to blackmail. It cannot allow the agreement to collapse, and it is ready, of course, to do all it can to prevent this from happening. This is why Zarif was being friendly with the Saudis in his recent tour of the Gulf.

Yet some in Iran want to use the disagreement about Geneva to wage a fierce internal battle. The decisive battle is still early and needs time to mature. It is a necessary period to test which side is right and who is wrong, although Khamenei has expressed his pessimism regarding the dialogue several times. In the meantime, the hardliners, led by former presidential candidates Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, and Saeed Jalili, are preparing to form a new front against the current administration's approach.

A few days ago a passenger climbed into a taxi in Tehran. He asked the driver about his opinion of rapprochement with the United States. The man’s answer was simple: "I do not understand politics and cannot elaborate on the issue. But I know one thing, whenever the United States gets close to us, a disaster occurs, and when it is far we feel better."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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