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Khamenei Arrives at Moment of Truth in Vienna P5+1 Talks

With just 48 hours to go before the deadline is passed for the conclusion of final negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, the two sides remain apart. A last minute modified offer, brokered by the United States to the other P5+1 countries, would give Iran access to both advanced enrichment and fuel rod fabrication technologies at a later stage—in return for iron-clad guarantees that Iran will not make a breakout to a nuclear bomb.

In late night talks on Friday, November 21, US Secretary of State John Kerry presented his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif with a detailed timeline for the lifting of sanctions against Iran, beginning with sanctions on medical equipment and pharmaceuticals and then the lifting of sanctions on Iranian banks. President Barack Obama has discretionary authority to lift these sanctions under national security waivers written into the laws.

As part of the diplomacy in Vienna and in the region, Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Paris late last week, to provide a detailed status report on the negotiations. The Obama Administration is taking care to keep all of the major US regional allies briefed on the final offer, to minimize tensions should the Iranians accept the terms negotiated by the P5+1, the US, Britain, France, German, Russia and China.

Kerry has made clear that, despite the fact that President Obama has a very large “legacy” stake in a successful agreement, he will recommend against any extension of the talks deadline unless there is clear progress towards a final deal. If Tehran rejects the deal, members of the US Congress are poised to carry out an intense campaign for renewed and even increased sanctions against Iran.

Tehran sources, on the other hand, report that the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would prefer to extend the talks for several months more, to give him more time to deal with behind-the-scenes factional war over the P5+1 outcome. By his profile, Khamanei is a procrastinator who has survived in part by playing off one faction against the other, and then flexibly aligning with the winning sides.

Beyond the nuclear issue itself, a deal with the P5+1 would clearly strengthen the hand of President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate and reformist backers. This is one reason why hardliners are mobilizing to stop the deal. The New York Times reported November 21 on a state-sanctioned conference in Tehran that called for the Supreme Leader to walk away from the P5+1 talks, arguing that anything that is permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) should not be traded away in the Vienna negotiations. They assailed Rouhani and Zarif as “American lackeys” and prominently displayed photographs of the Iranian nuclear scientists who have been assassinated since 2010, blaming their murders on “the Americans.”

But one longtime conservative advisor to Khamenei, Amir Mohebbian, known for an analysis of threats to Iran written for the Supreme Leader, is now backing a deal with the P5+1, arguing that, with the rise of the Islamic State and allied Sunni jihadists, Iran must recalibrate its global stance and image and go for a genuine reforming of the system.

“We strive to be the leading nation in the Islamic world, and faced with the Islamic State, it is much better for us to attract support if we represent a moderate version of Islam. We still demand justice, but will try to get it in another way,” Mohebbian was recently quoted. “It is my conviction that those who make decisions within the system want it to be alive and supported,” he said. “For survival, we need change.” He concluded: “If there is a deal, and if it is good, the entire system will go along with it. There will be a huge political shift after a deal.”

The ultimate decision in Tehran whether to accept the most recent P5+1 offer or risk deeper sanctions and possible future military action, lies with the Supreme Leader and the Supreme National Security Council, run by Arab-Iranian Ali Shamkhani. Shamkhani is considered a bridge between the Supreme Leader and the Rouhani camp, and played a central role in the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this year. He is a former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander and is viewed as a rising star. Ironically, some reports from Tehran suggest that Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Al Quds Force, is also supporting a nuclear deal, which could be yet another critical last-moment tilt factor in favor of an agreement.

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