Iran’s long and winding road to lifting the sanctions

Democratic forces can prevail if Rouhani’s administration continues pursuing a foreign policy of peace.

Western powers have double standards when dealing with Iran, writes Ganji [Reuters]

The Geneva Accord between Iran and P5+1 went into effect on January 20, but the debate still rages in Iran. For Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, uranium enrichment is a red line that he will not relinquish. The conservatives view the Accord very negatively, whereas the supporters of Hassan Rouhani administration consider it  a positive development.

In his struggle to see through the realisation of a comprehensive nuclear deal with the West, Iran’s president will have to face not only Western suspicion but also domestic opposition. Ultimately, however, the potential benefit to Iran from the deal is worth fighting for.

Undoubtedly, Western powers have double standards when dealing with Iran. They see no problem with the 200-300 nuclear bombs that Israel, a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), possesses. At the same time, US military aid has guaranteed Israel’s strategic superiority over the entire region. This has enabled Benjamin Netanyahu to use the dispute with Iran to distract attention from the fact that Israel continues to occupy Palestinian land.

The unwise rhetoric employed by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust and Israel armed Israeli hardliners with the perfect excuse to encourage “the most crippling economic sanctions” on Iran, which have destroyed the fabric of Iranian society and disrupted the lives of tens of millions of ordinary Iranians.

Iran has made many concessions although under the NPT they are considered among its rights. It is true that the Geneva Accord has imposed on the country an inspection regime that is beyond Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. However, given the current atmosphere of mistrust, the Rouhani administration had no choice but to halt some of the peaceful nuclear projects. Despite these concessions, the Accord has ultimately recognised Iran’s rights to peaceful use of nuclear energy.

More difficult negotiations, however, are still ahead since the two sides have different interpretations of both the Geneva Accord and the NPT. Iran believes that the right to enrich uranium has been recognised by the Accord. US Presidnet Barack Obama administration does not seem to oppose Iran’s enrichment of uranium at up to a level of 5 percent, but the powerful lobbies of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the extremists and warmongers in the US, are doing their utmost to see the Accord fail.

If the Western powers do not recognise – in writing –  Iran’s right to uranium enrichment, the negotiations will fail. But, because both the US and the Iranian governments are committed to resolving the current diplomatic impasse, even if these negotiations stop, there will eventually be another attempt to restart them. That is to say, the failure of the negotiations will not necessarily mean immediate war.

A balancing act at home

In Iran, the nuclear deal has been met with different reactions on the political arena. The reformists, led by former President Mohammad Khatami, and the pragmatists, led by another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both support the Rouhani administration. Moderate conservatives are not too enthusiastic about the president[Pr], but a majority of them do not oppose the Geneva Accord.

The hardline conservatives, however, have fiercely attacked the Accord, claiming that Iran has made too many concessions, but has received very little in return. Some figures like Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s appointee and the managing editor of “Kayhan”, a conservative mouthpiece newspaper, have attacked the deal in the Iranian press.

Shariatmadari wrote in an editorial that the text of the Accord indicates that Iran will receive only $4.8bn of its $100bn in frozen accounts in foreign banks. Others, like Javad Karimi Ghoddoosi, a hardline Majles deputy and a retired Revolutionary Guard officer, have claimed that Khamenei feels the Accord does not guarantee Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

To control these hardliners, Rouhani has no choice but to consolidate his working relationship with Khamenei who can easily rein in them, so long as he does not view the government as an opponent, and his red line for uranium enrichment in Iran is respected.

The Supreme Leader can easily control the hardliners, so long as he does not view the government as an opponent…

The hardliners do not have a significant social base of support, and instead present themselves as loyal supporters of Khamenei.

Thus, Khamenei’s support for Rouhani’s efforts disarms the hardliners. If, after inspections, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful, if Iran’s right to produce low-enriched uranium was honoured, and if the economic sanctions were gradually lifted, the hardliners will be completely marginalised.

Hassan Rouhani’s electoral victory is a hopeful sign. The hope is not that Iran would soon be democratised, but rather that it will be able to remove the shadow of war and end the sanctions. The Ahmadinejad administration squandered $800bn in oil revenues, corrupted the state, and left behind billions of dollars in debt that the nation must now foot.

Less than six months after taking office, the Rouhani administration has halted the spiralling growth of inflation, as well as the contraction of the economy. The lifting of some of the sanctions as a result of the Geneva Accord has made a positive psychological impact on the economy, and investment optimism has risen.

The promise of improved economic conditions is so important to ordinary Iranians that many of them support the nuclear negotiations and the bid to improve Iran’s relations with Western powers and the Middle East. Therefore, it is in Iran’s national interest to advance a policy of detente with the US and its allies, as well as the Middle East.

The negotiations will be long. It will take years to create mutual trust, and for economic sanctions on Iran to be lifted. However, if the Rouhani administration continues advancing its foreign policy of peace with the world and improves the economy, the domestic situation will also change in favour of democratic forces.

Akbar Ganji is one of Iran’s leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is the author of The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a non-violent transition to democracy in Iran.