The Iran nuclear talks will not pivot on whether the Iranian economy is brought to its knees

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Zarif still has his game face on.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Zarif still has his game face on.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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The Obama administration official in charge of sanctions on Iran, Russia, and ISIL, is leaving the US Treasury Department for the No. 2 job at the Central Intelligence Agency. And in an exit interview with the Wall Street Journal, David Cohen suggests his change in roles indicates the elevated importance that sanctions now hold in US foreign policy and national security issues.

Indeed Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence since June 2011, essentially affirmed that that the main gripe of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei is valid—the US, through economic sanctions, is trying to force Tehran to its knees. But in asserting that economic stress will ultimately force Khamenei into finally striking a nuclear deal with the West, he misses what may be the core issue in the talks.

No one disputes that the sanctions, combined with low oil prices, have markedly impacted Iran’s financial situation. But the question of whether a deal is struck by the March 24 interim deadline (or the June 30 final deadline) may not ride on such bread-and-butter issues.

Instead, one question may be whether Khamenei is interested more in his people’s living standards, or that of the Revolutionary Guard. Depending on your source, the Guards control between 10% and half the Iranian economy, and thus profit from the current state of affairs. A struggle between the Guards and Iranians who want a nuclear deal is playing out in public.

Another question is whether Khamenei—and the US Congress for that matter—is prepared to stand down from a quarter-century of politics centered on US-Iranian antagonism.

It’s not surprising that Cohen would tout the sanctions on his way over to Langley. But we won’t know until later this year whether he is right.