Iran Pragmatism May Keep Nuclear Talks Alive After Syria Strikes
Iran’s interest in better relations with the West is likely to keep nuclear talks on track even if the U.S. and allies attack Iranian ally Syria to punish it for using chemical weapons, analysts said.
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, took office this month after winning election on a pledge to repair ties with Western powers that are squeezing the Islamic republic’s economy with sanctions to halt its nuclear program. That spurred expectations of a resumption of international talks on the issue, which stalled in April.
The proposed strikes against Syria, denounced by Iranian leaders, may delay that process without derailing it. The U.S. has warned it’s ready to use force against Iran, too, to stop it obtaining atomic weapons. Rohani, whose mandate for economic revival requires an easing of the tensions, will probably win out over any hardliners advocating anti-Western policies in solidarity with Syria, said Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which advises Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government
“Strikes would make Iran see that the U.S. is serious about red lines,” Perthes said in a phone interview. While there’ll be protests from Iran, “the pragmatists will win the day by saying ‘Look, we don’t like the U.S. but we have to deal with them.’”
Iran held five rounds of talks with the U.S. and leading world powers in the 12 months through April, without resolving differences. Rohani has started putting together a new team to oversee Iran’s nuclear program and negotiations with the West.
Iranian leaders deny they are seeking to build atomic weapons, as alleged by the U.S. and Israel, which has also threatened military action if diplomacy can’t halt the program. Iran has continued to develop its technology as it participated in talks. The International Atomic Energy Agency said today that Iran has boosted its output of uranium and upgraded machinery, though progress has slowed since May.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision maker on all major affairs of state including nuclear policy, said on Aug. 3 when he endorsed the new president that he approves of Rohani’s “prudent” and measured approach toward the West.
Khamenei has spoken out against intervention in Syria, saying today that it would be a “disaster.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told reporters yesterday that Western strikes would “engulf the whole region.”
Brent crude has risen more than 5 percent in the past week as tensions mounted over Syria. Iran has in the past threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, a key transport route for oil supplies, if attacked.
If the attack does happen, it may lead to some friction between Rohani and more radical elements including the Revolutionary Guards and some clerics, yet Iran’s public response will probably be limited to “strong statements,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle East politics at Qatar University in Doha.
“Iran has its own concerns, wants to reduce the impact of sanctions, wants to have its financial system engaged with the international system,” he said. On the nuclear issue, “they may delay negotiations, but I’m not sure they will stop them.”
Iran’s economy suffered as the U.S. and European Union tightened sanctions in recent years. Oil output is near a 25-year low, inflation has exceeded 37 percent, and gross domestic product will shrink 1.3 percent this year according to International Monetary Fund forecasts.
No Regime Change
U.S. President Barack Obama and his allies have said that they don’t intend to seek the overthrow of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad through the proposed military strikes, which are instead aimed at punishing his government for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Rebel groups that have been fighting to topple Assad for 2 1/2 years, with backing from the U.S. and its European and Arab allies, say more than 1,300 people were killed in the chemical attack last week in a region near Damascus. Syria’s government has denied responsibility.
The extent of the Western action in Syria may determine how far Iran can decouple its support for Assad from its plans to re-engage the West, said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at research firm IHS Jane’s, by phone from London.
Strikes probably won’t be limited to a single day, though the U.S. and its allies are still working to define the goals of a prospective campaign, a U.S. official said today, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss war planning efforts.
A “fairly limited strike involving some form of punitive action,” which stops well short of seeking to remove Assad, “may be an acceptable storm for the Iranians to weather,” Hartwell said. “That will be something they can ride out, and in six months come back to talks with the U.S.”
Asked whether a Western attack on their Syrian ally would lead Iran’s policy makers to conclude that their country would be safer if it had nuclear weapons, Hartwell said that “it’s probably already the Iranian calculation.”
The Islamic republic perceives the nuclear arsenals of Israel and Pakistan as threats, he said. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s a question of how the West is willing to respond and make concessions to alleviate those concerns.”
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