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October 6, 2014 7:03 am

Don’t Let Iran Off the Hook on Nuclear Talks

avatar by Einat Wilf


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in Vienna, August 2014. Photo: Wikimedia

As world leaders have turned their attention to fighting the “network of evil” that is the Islamic State, the powers negotiating with Iran are perhaps considering easing their pressure on the Islamic Republic, thinking that “the enemy of the enemy is my friend.”

This thinking is wrong.

Not only is the enemy of my enemy still my enemy when it comes to the Middle East, but in these negotiations the Iranians are under far greater duress than their suave demeanor and presentations of being an ally of the West portray.

Leaders of the P5 + 1 negotiating powers should not underestimate or underplay their hand. They are in an excellent negotiating position and should be able to secure an agreement that leaves Iran far from being able to pursue a military nuclear program.

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There is one thing that the Iranian regime cares about more than its nuclear program, and that is its own survival. If – from the Iranian perspective – the path to regime preservation is more likely to be secured by dismantling their nuclear program than by continuing it, then the program will be dismantled. This equation is simple. Getting the Iranian regime to reach this conclusion has been the challenge.

But it appears that Tehran is at least beginning to make this calculation. The Iranian regime is facing twin threats to its survival: the economic sanctions put in place by Western powers, and the overall context of the Arab Spring – from the Islamic State to the Green Revolution. These pressures have been magnified by internal schisms and disputes among the regime’s major players.

As the regime seeks to secure its future stability, it finds an appealing model to its east – and it is not North Korea – it is China. Iran cannot pursue the path of North Korea in the goal of regime preservation. Its people are too numerous, too educated, and too independent to accept such a closed and repressive existence as that suffered by the North Koreans. Even in Iran, repression has its limits and the Ayatollah regime cannot rely on it forever to preserve itself. But China presents a more intriguing option.

Like Iran after the Green Revolution, China too brutally repressed the protests of Tiananmen Square. But soon thereafter China embarked on the second and most productive phase of its “pinyin” – Change, Reform, Open-Up – policy of economic reforms. This policy, described as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” was in effect a process of carefully controlled opening of the economy in a ruthlessly capitalistic manner , all the while maintaining strict party control and the power of the Communist Party. The high growth rates generated by this policy enabled the Chinese Communist Party to placate the population while securing its power. For the Iranians, the Chinese model for regime preservation is highly attractive.

The only thing standing between the Iranians and the realization of this policy is the Western sanctions. The sanctions are hurting Iran, but its leaders are trying not to show it. Not unlike Scarlett O’Hara, who sews a fancy dress from the drapes of her estate to hide her poverty and dire need as she goes to Rhett Butler for money, so too are the Iranians putting up a great show of relaxed negotiations, greatly aided by the perception that their fight against the Islamic State is somehow a favor to the West. They take great care to make statements that present themselves as coming to the negotiating table as proud and independent equals, rather then needy cousins.

Just as Rhett Butler was not fooled, neither should the negotiating powers be. Iran needs the West twice over – to ease sanctions and to fight the Islamic State. Western leaders are negotiating from a position of strength. In controlling the sanctions regime while fighting the Islamic State, they hold the key to what the Iranian regime requires for its preservation, and there is nothing that the Ayatollah regime values more. The powers have a very strong hand. They should not underplay it, and should not be fooled into thinking that their hand is weak. There is an opportunity to reach a good deal – one that is good for the world and good for the Iranian people. This opportunity should not go to waste.

Dr. Einat Wilf is a Senior Fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute and an Adjunct Fellow with the Washington Institute. Dr. Wilf formally served on Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during her time in the Knesset.

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