The Iran nuclear talks pivot on one person

Awaiting instructions.
Awaiting instructions.
Image: Reuters/Brendan Smialowski
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The signs seem to favor a next-stage accord between international negotiators and Iran today or in the early hours tomorrow—traders continue to bid down prices, expecting a deal, and hence a flood of pent-up Iranian oil on the market. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says the chances of agreement “are high.”

But if an accord is announced, one important matter is plain—Iran leader Ali Khamenei does not seem, at least outwardly, to have recognized that he will fail to obtain his bottom-line demand, which is an immediate cessation of all sanctions. Rather, the US-led international negotiators are likely to keep sanctions in some form in place for a decade, and perhaps longer.

Unless Khamenei tells his representatives to get the best deal possible short of instant sanctions relief, the talks are likely to continue to unveil surprises of brinksmanship, such as this week’s backtracking by Tehran on a long-time oral agreement to ship its enriched uranium to Russia.

In the US, dozens of members of Congress and various pressure groups are loudly pushing to scrap the deal as it is currently being negotiated. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi king Salman, too, are aligned—although not apparently in touch—in opposition to the nuclear agreement. Behind the scenes, various players, such as thinkers at Columbia University, are crafting far stiffer sanctions should such opponents prevail, including a complete cutoff of Iran from the oil market.

Yet none of them has turned out to be as pivotal in the talks, at least at this juncture, as the reportedly ailing, 75-year-old Khamenei. Of course, Khamenei is not a one-man ruler—he navigates and juggles in a complex terrain that includes hard-line clerics such as himself; the Revolutionary Guards, who control much of the economy, and thus have a profit motive in the current system; not to mention the Guardian Council, and Council of Experts. If he hasn’t already, he needs to start talking to them.