By Sean Savage/JNS.org
While reports suggest that Iran and its Western negotiating partners are close to striking a nuclear deal before the Nov. 24 deadline for an agreement, the Iranians find themselves at a crossroads. Iran—which has long promoted Islamic extremism and exported terrorism—must choose between security cooperation with the West against the Islamic State terror group and economic relief, or continuing down its current path towards becoming a nuclear pariah state.
That choice comes against the backdrop of a growing push within Iran for a change in the country’s direction, following years of isolation and economic stagnation.
“Overall the economic situation is quite bleak,” Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi—a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a candidate in Iran’s 2013 presidential race—told JNS.org. “Unemployment, inflation, and debt remain very high, economic growth remains around zero, and international trade remains extremely constrained due to the sanctions on banking, oil, and other sectors.”
According to analysts, the difficult economic situation in Iran is largely attributed to Western sanctions and a recent decline in the price of oil—Iran’s largest source of income. The tough economic climate has created added pressure on the Iranian government to deliver a nuclear deal that would relieve sanctions and end the country’s international isolation. Amirahmadi said many Iranians are quietly waiting for a diplomatic breakthrough.
“It is quiet [in Iran] because the people are expecting something to happen,” he said.
Within the Iranian government, there are two factions maneuvering to formulate a deal with the P5+1 powers (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany). The more hardline faction is led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has rejected proposed nuclear deals in the past, including in 2009. The so-called “moderate” faction is led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 with a promise of improving Iran’s foreign relations and reviving the economy, and would seemingly be a more flexible negotiating partner for the West.
Despite their differences, both sides are united on promoting what they call “Iran’s basic nuclear rights” such as maintaining uranium enrichment capacity on Iranian soil, which is one of the key sticking points between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic.
Regardless of the internal differences over negotiating style, both sides in Iran are “absolutely committed” to building nuclear weapons, said Dr. Daniel Pipes, founder and president of the Middle East Forum think tank.
“The Iranian leadership is absolutely committed to building nuclear weapons and will use any agreement to further that end,” Pipes told JNS.org.
Many within the Iranian government view nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent against instability in the Middle East, according to Amirahmadi.
“Iran, like Israel, sits in a region surrounded by the Arabs and is a minority Shi’a religion,” he said. “It has problems with the Kurds, the Turks, and of course the Arabs. It is a very isolated in many ways and security is always an issue. … I think if Iran could be assured about its security, it would be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons program [and] its missile development, and become a more friendly state.”
For U.S. President Barack Obama—whose administration is reeling from a sweeping Republican victory in this month’s midterm elections, threatening to relegate the president to lame duck status for his last two years in office—a diplomatic deal with Iran would viewed as a major foreign policy victory.
Yet any deal struck with Iran would face tough scrutiny from the Republicans, who will control both houses of Congress in January, and even from Congressional Democrats.
In his first action upon the U.S. Senate reconvening following the midterm elections, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tried to force a vote on a bill to impose tough new sanctions on Iran. Graham—who sits on several powerful Senate committees, including Armed Services and Appropriations, and is expected to wield more foreign policy power when Republicans take the majority in January—has said that he vows to block any “bad deal” with Iran.
“Today, there are new bosses in Washington,” Graham said in a recent interview with Israel Hayom, referencing the Republicans’ recent retaking of a Senate majority. “The biggest losers, after the midterm elections, are Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear program.”
Graham and his fellow Republicans are not alone in their efforts, as several leading Democratic senators such as Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have been critical of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran.
“Iran is a unique issue because Democratic members of Congress tend to be closer to their Republican colleagues than to the administration,” Pipes told JNS.org. “The question ahead is whether there will be a veto-proof majority. One ranking House member told me yesterday he thinks this is possible.”
As the deadline neared for a diplomatic deal, Khamenei, who has a long history of anti-Zionist rhetoric, issued perhaps his most detailed tirade to date in a Twitter post titled “9 key questions about the elimination of Israel.”
“Why should & how can #Israel be eliminated? Ayatollah Khamenei’s answer to 9 key questions. #HandsOffAlAqsa,” read the introduction to Khamenei’s tweet, posted on Nov. 9.
As part of the tweet, Khamenei proposed a referendum that would serve as a means for the elimination of Israel.
“So far as I know, Khamenei’s idea of a referendum has not been proposed by the Islamic Republic of Iran until now. It suggests that the Iranian leadership wishes to make common cause with the leftists also wanting to see Israel disappear,” Pipes said.
The first answer provided within Khamenei’s nine points accuses “the fake Zionist regime” of trying to achieve its goals via “infanticide, homicide, violence & iron,” with the only solution to these “Israeli crimes” being the “elimination of this regime.”
The “practical & logical mechanism for this,” according to Khamenei, is through a “public and organized referendum” for all the “original people of Palestine including Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” excluding “the Jewish immigrants who have been persuaded into emigration to Palestine,” who “do not have the right to take part.”
In addition to the referendum, the Iranian leader called for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to fight against Israel, rejecting any U.N.-moderated negotiation.
In response to Khamenei’s tweet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned world powers not to rush into a bad deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
Referencing Khamenei’s plan, Netanyahu said in a statement that he sent a letter to the P5+1 countries that highlights Iran’s desire to destroy Israel.
“[Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is] publicly calling for the annihilation of Israel as he is negotiating a nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries,” Netanyahu said.
Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog said that its investigation into the potential weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program has stalled due to the Islamic Republic’s refusal to cooperate with the probe. Obama, meanwhile, sent a letter to Khamenei in mid-October expressing the countries’ shared interest in the fight against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
“There is no moderation in Iran,” Netanyahu said. “It is unrepentant, unreformed, it calls for Israel’s eradication, it promotes international terrorism, and as the IAEA report just said, it continues to deceive the international community about its nuclear weapons program. This terrorist regime in Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear threshold power. I call on the P5+1 countries—don’t rush into a deal that would let Iran rush to the bomb.”
Despite Khamenei’s calls to destroy Israel and his government’s push for nuclear weapons, Amirahmadi argued that there is “no historical animosity between Iran and the Jewish people.” Instead, he blames Islamic fundamentalism for the hijacking the Iranian-Israeli relationship.
“If you go back to the very history early of Islam, you see that many Muslim leaders massacred Jews, such as the first Shi’a Imam Ali,” Amirahmadi told JNS.org.
Yet Iran and Israel enjoyed close relations before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and both countries today do not have any direct territorial disputes like the ones Israel or even Iran have with their Arab neighbors.
“But that is not how the Islamic fundamentalists who rule Iran see things. They see things from the Islamic perspective, and unfortunately in the early history of Islam, that problem [with Judaism] existed,” Amirahmadi said.
As an Iranian, Amirahmadi said is concerned about the impact of a prolonged nuclear dispute on relationship between the people of Iran and Israel.
“Governments come and go, what remains is the people,” he said. “I am concerned that the animosity between the two governments spreads into the minds of the two people.”
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