Blogs: Paul Pillar

Russia, Sanctions, and Politics in Iran

Paul Pillar

Any failure to understand all this is a failure to understand that there are real politics in Tehran, which means factions with different views and objectives contending for power and seeing their influence rise and fall with policy successes and failures. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has much at stake with the economic consequences of the nuclear issue. He was elected last year by people who placed in him high hopes for economic improvement. He has managed so far to clean up somewhat the problems left by his predecessor, which are due partly to economic mismanagement as well as to the sanctions. But Rouhani needs to show a lot more improvement, and fairly soon, or else he will be a lame duck for the rest of his term. He and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are as good as it's going to get as far as Iranian interlocutors for the West are concerned. If they come to be seen as failures the alternatives will be worse.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has a different perspective and different position but has to deal at one remove with some of the same realities. His views toward the West are far more unreconstructed than Rouhani's and in some respects even despicable. His very pessimistic pronouncements about the negotiations are partly an effort to separate himself from possible failure but also partly a genuinely strong suspicion about Western and especially U.S. motives. Khamenei is not a dictator, however, and that is part of what it means to have real politics in Tehran. He cannot ignore the economic problems and the views about them that put Rouhani into office. He can talk about self-reliance and say sanctions be damned, but he surely knows that such lectures are an insufficient palliative.

If the negotiations were to fail—tragically, given what has been achieved so far—it would not be because of anything the Russians, annoyed about reactions to Crimea, might do, and it won't be because of a weakening of sanctions. It would be because of the efforts of hardliners elsewhere, including in the United States as well as Iran, to kill the prospects for an agreement, with the hardliners in each place playing off each other.

More specifically, it might be that given the influence of the hardliners, the U.S. position in particular would remain too inflexible to make it possible for the Iranians to make further concessions. One Western official summed up well what is most needed now in the negotiations:

The greater power has to bend. We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we're serious. It's alarming that this seems out of our ability today.