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Commentary | 26 November 2014

It still comes down to the Supreme Leader’s strategic choice

The recent extension of the Iranian nuclear negotiations is a clear confirmation that there are too many technical details and political factors remaining unresolved to prepare a final agreement. Looking at Iranian behaviour, I am sceptical about the chances for a deal, but I would hold my conclusions until the new deadline is closer.

Working only with open sources and without an intimate knowledge of deliberations at every stage of negotiating process in recent months, it is hard to predict the final results of talks with Iran. We may hope that this new deadline will give all negotiators opportunities to reach a solution. But it seems today that there is a higher chance for reaching an agreement that the Israelis, the Saudis and a majority of the U.S. Congress will find dissatisfying. There is less chance for an agreement based on mutual and reasonable concessions by all negotiating parties.

It seems that the P5+1 group has shown flexibility and made multiple concessions regarding Iran’s need to explain possible military dimensions of its nuclear program and the scope of its uranium enrichment. It has also decoupled the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal from present talks. With these concessions, the powers have created a ’face-saving’ exit for Supreme Leader Khamenei. Based on their statements, I do not see this same flexibility on the side of Iran’s leaders and diplomats. It may be all Chinese (or rather Persian) shadow theatre, but if it’s not – it might exclude compromise in the future.

A key factor is Supreme Leader Khamenei and his calculations. Any comprehensive agreement would mean him making a strategic choice. My understanding of the Iranian political system and Khamenei’s rationale for action is that he is not able to solve this dilemma and still hopes for a solution which would allow him to have his cake and eat it too. I am not sure if after so much effort, so many years of investing in nuclear capabilities, and enduring the high economic costs caused by the sanctions he is really interested in additional limitations, transparency and verification measures. He remains obsessed with the internal stability of Iran’s theocracy and is not interested in a further opening to the U.S., which might follow even an imperfect final agreement.

It is not only within Iran that taking strategic decisions comes with great difficulty.  I assume that the Obama administration and Israeli government are also not comfortable with the choice between a ‘bad deal’ and failure of negotiations. They may be reconsidering the logic and necessity for returning to an “all options on table” policy, i.e. a hint at a possible military option to press Iran to agree to a compromise solution.

Finally, there is also a growing risk that in next few months Tehran might overestimate its role in fighting the Islamic State and decide to move forward with its nuclear program to create new conditions on the ground. In doing so, it could miscalculate Israel’s determination to prevent further progress in Iranian nuclear capabilities.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.