Iran deal bol­sters hard­line regime


IT WAS not last sum­mer’s roller­coaster, when Iran and six world pow­ers clinched a deal to end the decade-long im­passe over Tehran’s nu­clear pro­gramme. But the an­nounce­ment, last week­end, that Iran had ful­filled its obli­ga­tions un­der the deal, paving the way for the lift­ing of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions, was not with­out its drama.

Di­plo­mats an­nounced the re­lease of five US cit­i­zens held hostage by Tehran, in ex­change for a US pres­i­den­tial par­don for seven con­victed felons, held in US pris­ons for aid­ing Iran evade sanc­tions. The break­through co­in­cided with the deal’s im­ple­men­ta­tion and boosted the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s claim that diplo­macy with Iran had worked.

De­spite Iran’s seizure of 10 Amer­i­can sailors in the Gulf a few days ear­lier, it ap­pears that the deal’s happy end­ing has come to fruition.

The agree­ment’s cheer­lead­ers claim that diplo­macy has strength­ened the hand of the more mod­er­ate fac­tions in­side Iran; es­tab­lished a di­rect chan­nel be­tween the US and Iran which fa­cil­i­tated the solv­ing of crises un­re­lated to the nu­clear stand­off; and has thus made it pos­si­ble for other re­gional chal­lenges to be more con­struc­tively and ef­fec­tively ad­dressed.

It re­mains to be seen whether the nu­clear deal will stand the test of time. Crit­ics have pointed out many of its flaws, not least of which is the fact that the ver­i­fi­ca­tion and in­spec­tion regime fails to fully shed light on Iran’s past pro­cure­ment ac­tiv­i­ties and is in­suf­fi­ciently tasked to in­ves­ti­gate and de­tect clan­des­tine ac­tiv­i­ties at non-de­clared fa­cil­i­ties. The early lift­ing of sanc­tions has also left the West with lit­tle lev­er­age against Iran, should the regime re­nege on its prom­ises or cheat.

One thing is for sure. The deal did not em­power Iran’s so-called mod­er­ates and demon­strated that US for­eign pol­icy it­self — as op­posed to a hand­ful of its cit­i­zens — is now held hostage by the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic.

Last Satur­day, the Guardian Coun­cil, the body in charge of vet­ting Iran’s can­di­dates for pub­lic of­fice, dis­qual­i­fied thou­sands from run­ning in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions sched­uled for the end of Fe­bru­ary. It also struck out nu­mer­ous can­di­dates for the As­sem­bly of Ex­perts, due to be elected on the same day. The As­sem­bly is in charge of elect­ing the new Supreme Leader — such a poll looks in­creas­ingly pos­si­ble as ru­mours mount about Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health.

Dis­qual­i­fy­ing more mod­er­ate can- di­dates from the of­fice means that the out­come of such an elec­tion — and the fu­ture course of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic — re­mains firmly in the hands of hard­lin­ers.

The same can be said of par­lia­ment: most re­formist can­di­dates, as well as al­lies of for­mer Ira­nian pres­i­dent, Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, were barred from run­ning. The next par­lia­ment will likely be dom­i­nated by con­ser­va­tives and hard­lin­ers.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has long be­lieved that the nu­clear deal would be trans­for­ma­tional — for the re­gion, for bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with Tehran and for Iran it­self. It has thus mod­u­lated its for­eign pol­icy in or­der to strengthen the mod­er­ates in Iran. It of­fered muted re­sponses to Iran’s out­ra­geous sup­port

for Bashar el As­sad in Syria; it re­frained from pun­ish­ing Iran for its vi­o­la­tions of UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tions on bal­lis­tic mis­siles tests; and it took a neu­tral stance when Tehran’s renta-mob ran­sacked the Saudi em­bassy, af­ter Riyadh ex­e­cuted a Shia cleric in early Jan­uary. When, two weeks ago, 10 US sailors were seized by Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards, held at gun­point, pa­raded on TV and forced to give in­ter­views for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses, the US in­sisted they had been treated prop­erly and fairly; it de­nied it had is­sued an apol­ogy; and praised diplo­macy for the quick res­o­lu­tion of the cri­sis.

We now know that all th­ese ac­tions by Iran were given a pass so as not to jeop­ar­dise re­lease of the hostages.

But, shock­ingly, two US cit­i­zens were not in­cluded in the deal and, within 48 hours of the re­lease of the cap­tives, more US cit­i­zens were kid­napped in Bagh­dad by Iran’s Shia proxy mili­tias. It ap­pears that Iran can in­def­i­nitely lev­er­age hostages against the US.

Mean­while, the US has rowed back from its de­clared goal of re­mov­ing As­sad from power; it has re­frained from push­ing back against Iran’s sup­port for ter­ror­ism and its ne­far­i­ous back­ing of Da­m­as­cus’s bru­tal war against its own peo­ple; and, gen­er­ally speak­ing, it has broad­cast to its re­gional ally that Wash­ing­ton’s for­eign pol­icy in the re­gion is re­align­ing.

This has, in turn, pushed Saudi Ara­bia into a cor­ner and made Riyadh take mat­ters into its own hands — not a recipe for sta­bil­ity, as the re­cent esca- la­tion of ten­sions be­tween Iran and Riyadh shows.

Iran has ex­tracted what it wanted from the West. The lift­ing of sanc­tions can­not be re­versed eas­ily and Iran will now seek to strengthen its econ­omy and in­su­late it from out­side pres­sures.

The flow of busi­ness into Iran will strengthen the regime and boost its le­git­i­macy. Mean­while, the so-called mod­er­ates, hav­ing ful­filled their role as nu­clear ne­go­tia­tors, are now go­ing to be shown the door by the real boss in­side Iran’s power struc­ture.

Iran’s bel­li­cose at­ti­tude in the re­gion is be­ing bol­stered by Western ac­qui­es­cence. Through hostage-tak­ing, a busi­ness Iran has mas­tered since the early days of the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion, the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic has proven once again that it can ex­tract con­ces­sions and score political points at a rel­a­tively low cost.

The nu­clear deal will now con­di­tion re­gional dy­nam­ics for years to come. And judg­ing by how lit­tle it has ben­e­fited the re­gion and Western abil­ity to pur­sue its in­ter­ests wher­ever they clash with Iran, it is hard to praise diplo­macy for the lit­tle it has ac­com­plished.

Emanuele Ot­tolenghi is a Se­nior Fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton, DC based Foun­da­tion for De­fence of Democ­ra­cies

The so-called mod­er­ates are now go­ing to be shown the door by the real bosses in Iran

A mis­sile on dis­play in front of a por­trait of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran

John Kerry


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