Iran’s mo­tives un­clear as talks re­sume

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Richter

VI­ENNA — As in­ter­na­tional ne­go­tia­tors gath­ered here Satur­day for what is sup­posed to be a fi­nal round of nu­clear diplo­macy with Iran, the hope of achiev­ing a deal hinges on a mys­tery: What does Ira­nian supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei re­ally want?

An agree­ment lim­it­ing Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram would po­ten­tially be the most im­por­tant diplo­matic achieve­ment of the decade, and it has seemed in­creas­ingly within reach since April 2, when ne­go­tia­tors reached a ten­ta­tive deal.

But in re­cent weeks, Khamenei has moved away from un­der­stand­ings his ne­go­tia­tors had ap­peared to agree on. In par­tic­u­lar, he has said he would refuse to al­low in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors ac­cess to sites of sus­pected nu­clear ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary bases.

The six world pow­ers seek­ing the agree­ment have called scru­tiny of Iran’s mil­i­tary sites a nec­es­sary part of any deal to pre­vent Iran from cheat­ing on a nu­clear ac­cord. Khamenei and other top Ira­nian of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers have re­peat­edly in­sisted that they will refuse such ac­cess.

Western of­fi­cials still be­lieve odds fa­vor a deal af­ter al­most two years of bar­gain­ing. Some be­lieve Khamenei is only seek­ing ad­van­tage ahead of the June 30 ne­go­ti­at­ing dead­line.

But in Washington and Euro­pean cap­i­tals, con­cern has deep­ened in re­cent weeks that Khamenei may truly be un­will­ing — or per-

haps po­lit­i­cally un­able — to make the con­ces­sions needed to seal a fun­da­men­tal com­pro­mise with for­eign pow­ers.

“Peo­ple ex­pected the Ira­ni­ans to spout off, then sim­mer down,” said Richard Nephew, who was a mem­ber of the U.S. ne­go­ti­at­ing team un­til ear­lier this year. “But they haven’t; they’ve dug in deeper.”

As Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry and other diplo­mats gath­ered at a for­mer Hab­s­burg palace here over the week­end, they in­sisted a deal was within reach, even as they con­ceded ques­tions that seemed re­solved in April are again in dis­pute.

“Ev­ery­body would like to see an agree­ment, but we have to work through some tough is­sues,” Kerry said Satur­day be­fore a meet­ing with Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions were ex­pected to con­tinue past the dead­line by at least a few days and could last un­til mid-July. The fi­nal days will prob­a­bly fea­ture threats, all­nighters and per­haps even some the­atri­cal de­par­tures, diplo­mats said.

Those who see Khamenei’s tough state­ments as a ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tic note that each side nonethe­less has com­pelling strate­gic rea­sons to want a deal. The U.S. and the five other world pow­ers in­volved in the talks — Bri­tain, France, Ger­many, China and Rus­sia — are hop­ing to post­pone the threat of the Ira­nian nu­clear pro­gram for at least 10 to 15 years; Iran des­per­ately needs re­lief from pun­ish­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions and seeks to end its sta­tus as in­ter­na­tional pariah.

Yet an agree­ment would be a huge step for an Ira­nian elite whose au­thor­ity and per­sonal wealth has been built on four decades of re­sis­tance to the United States. And Khamenei knows that among or­di­nary Ira­ni­ans, much of the credit for the deal would not go to him and the hard-lin­ers who back him, but to their more mod­er­ate ri­vals, in­clud­ing Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani.

“An elite firestorm” over the is­sues of in­spec­tions and the United Na­tions’ de­sire to look into Iran’s past nu­clear weapons re­search has clearly threat­ened the supreme leader, wrote Cliff Kupchan, chair­man of the Eura­sia Group risk-con­sult­ing firm, in a re­port this month.

Since the April 2 ten­ta­tive agree­ment, con­ser­va­tives in par­lia­ment, the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment, state media and the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, all key parts of Khamenei’s power base, have voiced crit­i­cism. There have been mass demon­stra­tions and per­sonal at­tacks on the ne­go­tia­tors, in­clud­ing dur­ing Fri­day prayers in Tehran.

The idea of in­spec­tions on mil­i­tary bases has gen­er­ated par­tic­u­lar con­tro­versy, with many in Iran say­ing the plan of­fends the coun­try’s dig­nity and treats it in a man­ner that no other coun­try would al­low.

How much Khamenei re­sponds to such pres­sure re­mains a mat­ter of in­tense de­bate among U.S. and al­lied of­fi­cials.

The bar­gain­ing that be­gan in Septem­ber 2013 has al­lowed U.S. of­fi­cials in­sights into the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment they have not had in the 36 years since the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion. They now have reg­u­lar ac­cess to top Ira­nian of­fi­cials; U.S. diplo­mats have a con­ge­nial per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Iran’s suave for­eign min­is­ter, Zarif.

But the 75-year-old Khamenei re­mains an enigma. Within the U.S. gov­ern­ment, opin­ions dif­fer on the ex­tent to which he is the de­cider, and on whether he can only strug­gle to shape a con­sen­sus of the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal forces within the Ira­nian elite.

U.S. an­a­lysts see Khamenei as a weaker leader than his pre­de­ces­sor, Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, the founder of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic, who had more charisma and broader public sup­port. Khamenei has strug­gled to jug­gle the goals of his hard-line in­ner cir­cle with public de­mands for a bet­ter econ­omy through an end to sanc­tions and an in­crease in for­eign in­vest­ment.

Last July, ne­go­tia­tors thought they had a deal, but Khamenei dashed their hopes just be­fore a dead­line by de­mand­ing that Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, in­stead of shrink­ing, be al­lowed to ex­pand many-fold over the course of a deal that he said should last for only seven years. Khamenei’s red lines later melted away, as he seemed to ac­cept a sharply con­strained ura­nium-en­rich­ment pro­gram and a longer du­ra­tion for the nu­clear deal.

When Khamenei ap­peared to ac­cept the in­terim deal in April, some an­a­lysts and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials said it ap­peared that the leader was turn­ing out to be a prag­ma­tist, rather than a fire­breath­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary, as he had de­scribed him­self. Now those judg­ments are again in doubt, par­tic­u­larly af­ter a na­tion­ally tele­vised speech Wed­nes­day in which Khamenei seemed to rule out many of the com­pro­mises that Ira­nian ne­go­tia­tors had ac­cepted.

In the speech, he said Iran must have re­lief from sanc­tions at the start of any agree­ment, not af­ter it had taken ver­i­fi­able steps to scale back its nu­clear pro­gram, as pre­vi­ously agreed. He also said Iran wouldn’t agree to a decade­long freeze in its ura­nium en­rich­ment, as stip­u­lated in April.

Khamenei made other provoca­tive state­ments that ap­peared aimed at en­cour­ag­ing hard-lin­ers. He claimed that Pres­i­dent Obama had se­cretly of­fered to rec­og­nize Iran as a nu­clear state in 2013 and ap­peared to be boast­ing that Iran’s abil­ity to en­rich ura­nium to 20% put it within easy reach of hav­ing ma­te­rial us­able in a bomb, noted Ray Takeyh, an Iran spe­cial­ist at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

Khamenei also again ruled out “un­con­ven­tional” ac­tiv­i­ties by in­spec­tors, in­clud­ing ac­cess to mil­i­tary bases and in­ter­views with nu­clear sci­en­tists.

The supreme leader may have sev­eral goals in mind. He may be try­ing to force a re­open­ing and rene­go­ti­a­tion of set­tled is­sues, fol­low­ing a pat­tern seen in past Ira­nian ne­go­ti­a­tions. He could be try­ing to tem­po­rar­ily pla­cate hard-line con­stituen­cies at home, with a plan to back off later. Or he could have de­cided that pres­sure from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and other con­ser­va­tive in­sti­tu­tions has left him no choice but to jet­ti­son pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments, even if do­ing so threat­ens the deal.

Khamenei could pay a huge price for throw­ing up de­mands that would sink the deal. Iran could be blamed for a diplo­matic col­lapse, rais­ing the chances that world pow­ers would agree to main­tain, or even toughen, the sanc­tions that are crush­ing Iran’s econ­omy.

But his moves, at the very least, may make it im­pos­si­ble to com­plete the deal within a pe­riod even close to the cur­rent dead­line. His ne­go­tia­tors now face a daunt­ing task of squar­ing their past prom­ises with the leader’s pro­nounce­ments.

For the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the ef­fec­tive dead­line to com­plete the deal is around July 5. If the agree­ment isn’t in hand then, the ad­min­is­tra­tion prob­a­bly won’t be able to meet a con­gres­sional dead­line to pro­vide law­mak­ers the text and all sup­port­ing doc­u­ments by July 10. If the ad­min­is­tra­tion misses that dead­line, Congress gets an ad­di­tional month to re­view the deal, putting a fi­nal de­ci­sion off to mid-Septem­ber at the ear­li­est.

Nephew, the for­mer ne­go­tia­tor, says he re­mains op­ti­mistic that a deal will be struck. “It’s so im­por­tant, for so many strate­gic rea­sons, for both sides,” he said. “But it could also fall apart.”

Off ice of the Ira­nian Supreme Leader

SUPREME LEADER Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei says he would refuse scru­tiny of Iran’s nu­clear sites. It could be a ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tic, or cav­ing to pres­sure at home.

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