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Iran’s Rouhani Needs a Nuclear Resolution

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on Sep. 27, 2013. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

WASHINGTON, Jan 17 2014 (IPS) - After 34 years of enmity, Tehran and Washington are heavily invested in the success of a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme achieved through teamwork. Now the political future of Iran’s new moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, depends on this issue.

“Resolving the nuclear impasse is President Rouhani’s signature policy initiative,” Mohsen Milani, a professor of politics at the University of South Florida, told IPS.

“The analogy is with President Obama’s affordable health care act - if he doesn’t succeed with that, his legacy will be in big trouble." -- Prof. Mohsen Milani

“If he can’t bring about a nuclear resolution, he will not be able to pursue his other major foreign and domestic policy initiatives, hardliners will have a better chance to gain a majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections and his re-election will be jeopardised,” said the Iran expert.

“The analogy is with President Obama’s affordable health care act – if he doesn’t succeed with that, his legacy will be in big trouble,” he said.

The Joint Plan of Action, a historic first-phase agreement reached in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) on Nov. 24 is scheduled for implementation on Jan. 20.

During the “first step” of the deal, Iran will scale back and limit significant parts of its controversial nuclear programme in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The “final step” of a “comprehensive solution” includes the dismantling of the sanctions regime, according to the text.

Since Nov. 24, the Rouhani administration, which inherited an isolated and economically ailing Iran after winning the June presidential election, has been touting its achievement at home and abroad.

“The Geneva accord means the great powers’ surrender to the great Iranian nation,” said Rouhani during a Jan. 14 speech in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran’s oil-producing Khuzestan province.

“The Geneva accord means breaking the dam of sanctions that was unduly imposed on the dear and peace-loving Iranian nation,” declared the centrist cleric to a cheering crowd.

Iran is also expected to repeat its readiness for a new era in international relations when Rouhani attends the World Economic Forum in Davos next week. The last Iranian leader to attend was the reformist President Mohammad Khatami a decade ago.

But while foreign investors may be eager to cash in on Iranian markets that have been heavily restricted due to sanctions, many barriers need to be lifted before they will be confident enough to do so.

Beyond the logistical and technical complexities involved in the implementation of the monumental accord, the deal also faces external challenges.

The Barack Obama administration is trying to prevent Congress from passing new sanctions on Iran, warning they can derail a peaceful solution to the nuclear conflict and even lead to war.

While no vote has been scheduled on the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013,” which would impose sweeping new sanctions against Tehran if it fails to comply with the terms of the Nov. 24 accord or reach a comprehensive deal within one year, Obama is still battling a heavily pro-sanctions Congress.

On Thursday, Obama even targeted Senate fellow Democrats by urging them to resist new sanctions while the deal is being implemented during a meeting about his legislative agenda.

“The president did speak passionately about how we have to seize this opportunity,” Senator Jeff Merkley told the Associated Press. “If Iran isn’t willing in the end to make the decisions that are necessary to make it work, he’ll be ready to sign the bill to tighten those sanctions. But we’ve got to give this six months.”

So sensitive are the negotiations that the Obama administration only released a nine-page text of the implementation details to lawmakers and senior aides with security clearances on Thursday after serious pressure.

Meanwhile, Iranian hardliners who oppose any U.S.-Iran rapprochement would use any failure of the deal, particularly the imposition of new sanctions, as proof that the Rouhani administration is not fit to lead Iran or protect its interests.

“He campaigned on a pledge to lift the sanctions, end Iran’s isolation and resolve in an honourable and peaceful way Iran’s nuclear impasse with the West,” said Milani. “A lot of people voted for him precisely for that pledge.”

Having lost their political upper hand after failing to unite in producing an attractive presidential candidate in June, these hardliners are currently sidelined.

Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who issued multiple public messages of support for Iranian diplomats during and after the Geneva talks, has urged domestic critics to support Rouhani’s efforts on the nuclear issue.

But the Ayatollah has also repeatedly said he does not trust the West to keep up its side of the bargain.

“No one should be under the illusion that the enemies of the Islamic revolution have today given up their enmity,” he said during a speech in the holy city of Qom on Jan. 9.

“Of course, it’s possible any enemy might have no choice but to step back, but the enemy and the enemy’s front-line must not be ignored,” he said.

The Rouhani government has warned of repercussions if new sanctions are passed while negotiations are in process.

“U.S. sanctions against Iran have had no positive results,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told a Russian Newspaper on Jan. 16.

“If radical legislators make an effort to increase sanctions, they will not like the results,” said the lead nuclear negotiator, who also recently warned that “the entire deal is dead” if new sanctions are issued.

“I do believe the Iranians when they say they would quit the talks if more sanctions are imposed,” Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told IPS.

“If Congress passes such legislation but not by a veto-proof margin, I think the impact would be serious – a short walk out – but not necessarily fatal,” said the Iran expert, who last visited Iran for Rouhani’s inauguration in August.

“However, it would undermine Obama’s credibility severely if he is perceived as incapable of controlling even the Democratic-led Senate and that would have negative implications for negotiating a comprehensive deal,” she added.

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