Perspective: How Nuclear Negotiations Could Change U.S.-Iranian Relations, an Interview with Harvard’s Iran Project Director Payam Mohseni

After years of tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and Iran have held the highest-level talks since the 1979 Revolution to negotiate the status of Iran’s nuclear program and have set a November 24 deadline to come to a deal. The Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy’s Lauren Leatherby asks Dr. Payam Mohseni, director of Harvard Belfer Center’s newly inaugurated Iran Project, about the meaning, outlook, and impact of these negotiations for U.S.-Iran relations and Iran’s role in the international community.

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From a macro level, what do these negotiations represent for the two parties?

This negotiation is important because it breaks the taboo of the United States talking to Iran, it could remove the threat of nuclear proliferation for the international community, and it would help overcome the first obstacle to removing further impediments to normalization between the two countries.

If the countries are to engage with each other more substantively, that is, whether it’s working together on ISIL, security in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen, the U.S. perspective is that both parties must first discuss the nuclear program, then, once that’s done, they will work on other areas. Iran may have been trying to do it the opposite way, giving signals that they’re really willing to work with the U.S. on ISIL and in Iraq, and if the U.S. takes an easier hand on the nuclear negotiations, they will reciprocate and help on those other issues in the region.

The nuclear program is important because it is critical to the way Iran’s regional status has been viewed. Since the 1979 Revolution, U.S. policy has been to contain and isolate Iran, and the U.S. has not recognized Iran as a formal regional power or legitimate regional actor since the 1979 revolution. One of Iran’s strategies has been to be a destabilizer or a spoiler in multiple arenas, because it is not formally recognized as a stakeholder in the regional order. Iran demonstrates its strength by showing that it can disrupt stability to say that, “I’m here. You can’t exclude me. You can’t ignore me. I’m part of the order even if you want to isolate me.” I think this has actually been a weakness of U.S. foreign policy, because it incentivizes Iran to act as a spoiler rather than as an actor that can produce stability, durability, or peace.

What do the results of these negotiations mean for the political landscape within Iran?

If the nuclear negotiators come to a deal, it may likely change the domestic playing field. It may help diminish the power of hardliners and increase the power of moderates, which could herald a change in Iranian behavior in the international community.

If negotiations are successful, that will be a win for President Rouhani.  He’ll show the success of his policy of outreach and negotiation and the importance of being pragmatic and rational in foreign policy. That will not only increase prosperity domestically by bringing greater economic sanctions relief and better engagement with the international community, but it will also strengthen his hand at the domestic bargaining table in terms of the economic, social, and cultural policy he’d like to push domestically.

By contrast, the more negative and unsuccessful negotiations are, the weaker the moderate hand will become in Iran, because the moderates have basically come to power with a pledge to succeed in nuclear negotiations and to remove international sanctions from Iran.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has essentially given President Rouhani a strong hand to push forward with nuclear negotiation, and Khamenei has contained the hardliners to not destabilize or spoil Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating position. If the negotiations are not successful, this will be a political loss for Rouhani. He will start losing popular support, as he won’t be able to remove sanctions, and he will also provide a justifiable reason for hardliners to say that his position was wrong from the start and that the United States is not interested in negotiating with Iran.

Rewinding back several months, what was it that brought the two players to the table this time?

The sanctions caused a fragmenting of the hardliner forces. Their unified position, particularly during Ahmadinejad’s first term, started crumbling, and you saw key elements of the conservatives ally with or give support to Rouhani’s presidential candidacy. We also saw how, during the presidential debates and the election campaign in 2013, Rouhani framed his discourse that it was Ahmadinejad’s bad diplomacy that had produced many of the sanctions. He argued that he can both secure the nuclear program and remove sanctions at the same time. Sanctions, in other words, were important but not because they’ve brought Iran to its knees or destroyed the economy. Increased sanctions in the future will likely make Iran even more uncooperative.

And what changed from the U.S. perspective that brought them to the table?

It’s not just Iran that has changed, but the U.S. also removed an important red line. In the past, one reason why negotiations didn’t move forward was because the U.S. said Iran did not have the right to enrich, and that if negotiations proceed, Iran should completely stop uranium enrichment. Since last year, President Obama agreed, for the first time, to remove that red line from negotiations, allowing Iran to enter negotiations. The U.S. red line changed, and the Iranian red line didn’t really change, and that’s also another fundamental underlying fact about what brought the parties to the table.

Do you think recent developments such as ISIL have changed the calculus for wanting to come to a deal?

There’s less pressure on Iran to come to a deal. Not that it doesn’t want to, but Iran now feels it has a stronger hand in the negotiations and that the U.S. now needs Iran more. I think there’s a clear difference in perception, post-ISIL and pre-ISIL. I think that gives greater leeway to the hardline position in Iran domestically in how it sees itself coming to a deal.

What does Obama stand to gain from a deal?

 President Obama really wants a foreign policy win, and Iran is always a really important country for the U.S. in the Middle East. To be able to remove the nuclear threat would be a significant victory for him. The increased cooperation between the two countries, the breaking of taboos between the two, and the outreach has been significant. The US will be able to increase its influence and leverage in the region at a time when it sees its influence declining due to regional instability.

What do you foresee happening come Monday if, as many observers predict, a deal is not reached?

If a deal isn’t decided this time, there will be another extension, most likely, to either see if they can reach another deal, or there may be a partial agreement in that components are agreed to in exchange for the lessening of some sanctions, but I think generally there will be an extension of the status quo. Both parties benefit from maintaining the status quo.

And if negotiations, at whatever point in time, collapse?

If negotiations collapse, the U.S. will either escalate sanctions or there will be a greater move toward militarization of the conflict. At the same time, Iran could restart its nuclear program and advance its technological know-how and stockpile production, which I think would be bad for both sides. For both sides, the status quo is the better option.

As the deadline nears, what do you think the feeling among the general population in Iran is about the negotiations?

I think the Iranians are very upset about the sanctions. They see that as an unjust mistreatment of Iranians, and they are hopeful that any type of nuclear negotiations can lead to the removal of sanctions. Now, in terms of how much are they really ready to support a compromise in terms of the number of centrifuges, I think the numbers are mixed. We really don’t know. Generally, Iranians are in support of having nuclear enrichment capabilities and of having the domestic energy program, but when you really get into the details of what the precise number of centrifuges should be, Iranians aren’t as aware of what they would want. They will trust the officials in making those positions clear.

Some contest that broader historical conflicts of interest, such as Iran’s foreign policy in Syria and Lebanon, should also be on the table. Do you feel Rouhani’s foreign policy will be different from Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy?

Yes. There have already been signals. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was a key part of removing President Maliki in Iraq, even though the Revolutionary Guards had been reticent for his removal. Iran is signaling, because of Rouhani’s position, they want to change the relationship with the West. Shamkhani’s appointment is important because, not only is he an Arab, but he is held in high esteem by the Saudi monarch. There have been clear signals that Iran wants to change its behavior in the region and that it wants to end the cold war between Iran and the Saudis, but again, it depends on so many things that it’s difficult to clearly bring out what is happening. It’s so complex, and there are so many actors in all countries, that everything is entangled.

 

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Payam Mohseni is Inaugural Director of the Belfer Center’s Iran Project and Fellow for Iran Studies at the Center. He is also a Lecturer on Government in the Department of Government at Harvard University and the co-chair of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group at Harvard’s Center for European Studies.

Mohseni’s research focuses on the internal policymaking process of the Iranian state and the dynamics of factional politics in post-revolutionary Iran. Previously, Mohseni was a postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Belfer Center’s International Security Program. Before that, he was a Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and a member of the Iran Study Group at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University, and he obtained a B.A. in Development Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.A. in Conflict, Security, and Development from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

 

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