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P5+1 Impasse: Obama and Rouhani Both Face Domestic Factional Challenges

When Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Vienna, Austria days before the July 20 deadline for completing the final P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, he had one objective: To secure European backing for a four month extension of the talks. Without the European support, he would have had a hard time convincing President Obama to take the political risk of continuing with the negotiations that had reached an impasse over several final but crucial details.
A bipartisan group of Congressmen had made clear that they are opposed to any deal that would allow Iran to maintain an enrichment capability. On July 11, Senators Robert Menendez, a Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a ranking Republican member of the equally powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to President Obama spelling out four demands for the final status agreement: the extension of the limits on Iran’s nuclear program for 20 years; the establishment of both IAEA and P5+1 monitoring teams; the stretching out of the time for ending sanctions; and the complete dismantling of the nuclear sites at Fordow and Arak.
Although the two Senators knew that their demands were beyond what could reasonably be expected, they were delivering a strong message to President Obama that Congress will take strong measures against him if they view the final deal as a sell-out. The Menendez-Graham letter was signed by many other Senators and was drafted in consultation with AIPAC, the Israel Lobby.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, ironically, was facing similar challenges back home in Tehran. Hardline factions in the Iranian majlis, he knew, were opposed to the deal and were preparing for upcoming elections that would center in part on casting President Hassan Rouhani as a sell-out for accepting any restrictions on Iran’s right to reprocess and pursue a full-scale nuclear program.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is strongly committed to maintaining tight conservative control over the majlis. To further this objective, he delivered a public speech just before the July 20 deadline, announcing that Iran would maintain the right to keep at least 10,000 working centrifuges under any deal with the P5+1.
Within the national security leadership of Iran, the fight over the final P5+1 bargaining position is personified in the power struggle between General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, and Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Soleimani is a leading hard-liner, and Shamkhani is widely seen as a key ally of President Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, both of whom want the P5+1 deal and the lifting of sanctions.
Khamenei has furthermore threatened to move to fundamentally alter the Islamic Republic’s constitution, replacing the presidential system with a strictly parliamentary system. The constitutional change, which Khamenei has cited on several occasions recently, according to Iranian sources, would solidify conservative control over the government.
At the final sessions of the P5+1 talks that ended July 20, Iranian negotiators had offered to accept a reduced number of centrifuges, but the offer fell considerably short of what the P5+1 nations are ready to accept. While all six of the negotiating powers are in accord over the need to reduce both the number and quality of the Iranian centrifuges (Iranian scientists are working on newer generation centrifuges that would greatly increase the speed of production of enriched uranium, thus reducing the time it would take Iran to achieve a weapons-grade breakout), Russia and China have assured Iran that they will press for an accelerated timetable for lifting the crippling sanctions.
According to Paul Pillar, a former member of the US National Intelligence Council who specialized in non-proliferation issues, some of the most crippling US sanctions against Iran can be lifted by Presidential order and would not require US Congressional approval. For at least the first two years of a final status agreement, the President could unilaterally order the sanctions to be lifted. This would put the issue of lifting of Congressionally-mandate sanctions on the plate of the next President after Obama had left office. For similar considerations, namely the US midterm Congressional elections of 2014, the agreement to extend the P5+1 talks for another four months past July 20th put the new deadline safely past the election day, a crucial issue for President Obama’s political party.

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