Rise of Iran hardliners threatens nuclear diplomacy, Europe warned

Improved economic deal could strengthen hand of Tehran’s reformists, says report

European diplomats are being urged to restart shuttle diplomacy with Iran after the US presidential election in November or risk Tehran hardliners gaining still wider control of Iran’s many layers of government and its economy.

The European 3 (E3) – Germany, France and the UK - managed to maintain their unity at a meeting on Friday at which they agreed to keep the nuclear deal alive, oppose a US plan for the snapback of sanctions and possibly limit the lifting of the UN conventional arms embargo on Iran due to take place in the autumn.

But the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear programme, signed in 2015, is hanging by a thread after the UN nuclear watchdog the IAEA declared for the first time that Iran was not cooperating with its inspectors at two key nuclear sites. In a warning shot, the IAEA board, including the Europeans, voted to urge Iran to cooperate.

There is a growing feeling that the trends in internal Iranian politics mean the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will slowly collapse unless some fresh political initiative is made soon by the west. Indeed, diplomats are debating whether the political trends in Iran have already flowed so strongly in favour of those opposed to engagement with the west that the option of a revived deal has been lost for the foreseeable future.

Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iranian specialist at the European council on foreign relations, claims in a report that the path of engagement is not yet closed. But she warns that without an imminent western economic offer, after the US elections, “the two more hardline Iranian power blocs – the conservative ‘Principlists’ and Islamic Revolutionary Guard-linked ‘securocrats’ – will continue their recent ascendancy and press for a confrontational and ‘maximum resistance’ response”.

She warns the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018, and a rapid decline in the Iranian economy, has put a range of hardliners often with subtly different ideologies into the ascendancy.

“The Principlists and the securocrats now control the judiciary, the legislature, the Guardian Council, powerful financial institutions, the state media networks, and most of the security apparatus,” she said. These groups, she warns, are increasingly arguing Iran’s future growth lies in greater self-reliance and not on trading with the west.

A quiet debate is emerging among modernisers in Iran about whether to leave the presidential election uncontested in the 2021 vote, so making the hardliners handle the economic mess.

The balance of opinion is for reformists to stand despite their trouncing in the 2020 parliamentary elections, but Geranmayeh argues their chances of success depend in part on Europe creating a diplomatic opening between the US and Iranian presidential elections, regardless of who wins in America. “Such an opening could even influence who enters the Iranian electoral race, and its outcome. Iran’s moderate power centres currently have a weak hand internally, but they are not completely in retreat.”

She suggests European shuttle diplomacy could aim to agree an interim deal on the nuclear issue with Washington and Tehran.

A previous effort at a deal, largely brokered last year by the French president Emmanuel Macron, rested on financial relief from sanctions by the US and an Iranian agreement to renegotiate the 2015 deal. The bargain partly fell apart over the sequencing of the deal.

Although Donald Trump in recent days has said he still wants a deal, there seems no support for this in Iran. The newly elected parliament speaker, and a growing political force, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, has said that while Tehran does not reject diplomacy, it believes that negotiation with the US is “absolutely harmful and forbidden”.

Geranmayeh suggests, based on extensive interviews with Iranian officials, the economic offer will have to be more substantive than the one made in 2019 – partly because the economy has worsened due to coronavirus.

A second spike in the number of deaths in the country has delayed the reopening of parts of the economy, and the rial dropped to record lows against the dollar this week.

Geranmayeh argues that “the E3 will have a better chance at success if this is coordinated in a multilateral framework with Russia and China. In return for this freeze by Tehran, the E3 will need to put together an economic package for Iran. Such relief ought to be attractive enough, and sequenced in such a way, for Iran to commit to full compliance with the JCPOA. The E3 can kickstart this process but, given the impact of US sanctions, Washington’s position will determine the success of this approach.”

Senior foreign policy advisers to Joe Biden, including Jake Sullivan, have said: “It is simply impractical to think that the US will provide significant sanctions relief without assurances that Iran will immediately begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement that at least extends the timelines of the deal and addresses issues of verification and intercontinental ballistic missiles.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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