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On June 15, 2013, Hassan Rowhani became Iran’s president-elect and raised expectations about the outcome of future meetings between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, collectively known as the P5+1. From 2003 to 2005 Rowhani headed a team that negotiated Iran’s nuclear program with France, Britain, and Germany (EU3). In these negotiations the EU3 made every effort to stop Iran’s enrichment activities. The result of was the November 2004 Paris Agreement, which asked Iran to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities voluntarily and temporarily in exchange for some vague and, for all practical purposes, undeliverable economic promises. In what appeared to be a kind of “good-cop, bad-cop arrangement”—where the Europeans and Americans were working together but playing different roles—the US gave this agreement guarded approval.
By 2005 there were reports that the US might support EU negotiations with Iran and accept the so-called carrot and stick approach. Even though this was no more than the bad cop joining the good cop, Israel and its lobby groups expressed opposition to any shift in US policy and waged a campaign against it. In Iran, too, there was opposition to the Paris Agreement, especially after the US gave the agreement its tacit blessing. The opposition became stronger with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran, and Rowhani was removed as the head of the negotiating team. After protesting that the Paris Agreement was turning a voluntary and temporary halt in uranium enrichment activities into a permanent freeze and that the EU had not kept its part of the bargain, Iran ended the agreement.
In 2006, the US, Russia and China joined the talks between Iran and the EU3. The group became known as the P5+1. Ever since, the meetings between Iran and the P5+1 have continued on and off, but have produced no tangible results. The question is can Rowhani change the equation, reach an agreement with the P5+1, and mitigate the sanctions imposed on Iran.
As stated earlier, the P5+1 consists of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China. However, through proxies, there is also another power present at the meetings between Iran and the P5+1, i.e., Israel. Indeed, Israel is such a powerful factor that after every meeting between Iran and the P5+1, the US representative to the meeting briefs Israeli officials, sometimes even before briefing the US government. Thus, Iran is actually dealing with the P5+2.
The most import question is what these powers are trying to achieve by these meetings. Is their intention merely to end the nuclear program of Iran? Or are they ultimately trying to use these talks, and what appears to be Iran’s intransigence to end its nuclear program, to overthrow the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and replace it with a US-Israel friendly government? In order to answer this question, we have to divide the P5+2 into two groups: Russia and China on one side and the rest, which we can call the P3+2, on the other.
In the meetings between Iran and the P5+2 Russia and China seem to be merely tagging along, fishing in muddy waters to see if they can find some political or economic advantage. For example, in exchange for agreeing to impose the fourth set of UN sanctions on Iran, Russia made a deal with the US on the expiring 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the US deployment of anti-missile system in Europe, and China received less pressure from the US for its alleged currency manipulations.
Russia and China are ideologically not close to the Islamic Republic of Iran; nevertheless, they don’t seem to have any intention of overthrowing its government. They have never had a close relation with Iran in the past and don’t expect to have one in the future. Moreover, they don’t seem to believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program and are not opposed to Iran pursuing some limited civilian nuclear program. If Iran were to deal with Russia and China directly, a resolution of the nuclear issue could be reached relatively rapidly.
The story is different with the other 5 members of the P5+2. All five, particularly the US and Israel, used to have very close relations with the Shah of Iran; and ever since the downfall of the monarchy in 1979, they have been trying to restore such relations. Moreover, Israel sees Iran as a major impediment to its continued occupation of Palestine, and this makes its animosity toward the Islamic Republic of Iran even more intense.
The P3+2, particularly the US and Israel, have used every excuse to facilitate the overthrow of the post-revolutionary government of Iran, and sanctions have played a significant role in this attempt. Among the many excuses that they have used are Iran taking hostages at the US embassy in 1979, supporting terrorism, not supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, developing weapons of mass destruction, destabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, harboring Al-Qaeda, lacking democracy, being ruled by unelected individuals, violating human rights, not protecting the rights of women, not being forward-looking and modern and, of course, Iran developing nuclear weapons. The last one, developing nuclear weapons, is actually a relatively new excuse; it has been used as the rallying point since 2002.
In short, for 34 years sanctions have been levied against Iran, particularly by the US, even in the absence of any accusation that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Thus, members of the P3+2 appear to have a different agenda than merely ending or limiting the nuclear program of Iran; the agenda seems to be the good old notion of “regime change.” The formal meetings are used to show that Iran is not giving up its nuclear program, to pile up more draconian sanctions, to create enormous economic crisis, and, if there is a mass revolt, to wage a military attack against Iran. As long as this agenda exists, there will be no resolution, regardless of who the Iranian president is. Even if Iran agrees to halt its nuclear programs, all other excuses will remain.
Let us suppose, however, that in the meetings Iran concedes to each and every possible demand of the P3+2, or that the P3+2 reaches the conclusion that after 34 years of sanctions and threats of war there is no prospect of overthrowing the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Moreover, let us suppose that the US is apprehensive about another costly military conflict in the Middle East. Can sanctions be removed?
There are currently four multilateral sanctions and numerous unilateral sanctions against Iran. The four multilateral sanctions are imposed by the United Nations and, if the UN Security Council decides, these sanctions could be annulled. Some of the unilateral sanctions are imposed by the Council of the European Union. Theoretically, these sanctions, too, could be annulled if the Council decides to do so.
The majority of sanctions, however, are imposed by the US government. These sanctions themselves fall into two broad categories, those imposed by the executive branch and those mandated by the US Congress. The sanctions imposed by the executive branch are in the form of executive orders; and they, in turn, allow imposition of numerous sanctions by such entities as the Department of State and Department of the Treasury. These sanctions could be removed if the US president decides to do so. However, the same cannot be said of the sanctions imposed by the US Congress and signed into law by the president. An example of these kinds of sanctions is the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA), which was passed by the Congress on June 24, 2010, and signed by President Obama on July 1, 2010. These acts, which are usually much harsher and more sweeping than those imposed by the executive branch, cannot be annulled by the president at a stroke of a pen. They must be changed or removed by the Congress and this is technically very difficult. Moreover, it is hard to see how these sanctions can be removed given the fact that the underwriters of many of them are ultimately Israel and its lobby groups in the US, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As along as Israel needs an “existential threat” to justify its occupation of Palestine, as long as the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives need the Israeli lobby groups to get elected—and would therefore sign just about every anti-Iran bill put in front of them—and, in general, as long as the US “military-Industrial complex” needs an “enemy” to continue its existence, removing Congressional sanctions is nearly impossible.
In sum, even if President Rowhani makes concessions on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the P3+2 will ask for more; and if the P3+2’s intention continues to be “regime change,” no concession from Iran will satisfy them. Moreover, the removal of draconian sanctions imposed by the US Congress on Iran is so difficult that we should not expect real “sanctions relief” any time soon. The best that can be expected from Rowhani is the appointment of a more competent team of negotiators who can make it difficult for the P3+2 to carry out its “regime change” plan.
Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org