Behind the scenes at US-Iran talks

What factors will really affect the outcome of negotiations between the US and Iran?

New Statesman
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 24, 2013. Photo:Getty.

The widely anticipated handshake between Barack Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly never happened, but today US secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet, the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 1979. So what are the main factors affecting negotiations?

Rouhani's personality

Rouhani has been widely labelled a ‘moderate’.  Not everyone agrees with this label, but his diplomatic style is certainly a stark departure from that of his confrontational predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and he’s launched what the Economist describes as an ‘unprecedented charm offensive’. This includes releasing some political prisoners, condemning the Holocaust and switching control of nuclear policy from the national security council to the more moderate foreign ministry. Sceptics, however, warn against pinning too much hope on Rouhani, suggesting that he’s too close to Iran’s hardliners and is simply using a different strategy to achieve the same old, unfriendly Iranian goals.

Iran’s economy

Years of sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, and present an urgent problem for Iran’s new president. Youth unemployment is almost at 30%, the value of the rial has halved, and inflation is soaring – official figures place it around 39% a year, but some estimates by independent economists are as high as 60 to 100 per cent. This means Rouhani will be seeking a lifting of US sanctions as soon as possible. It may also mean that if the US waits too long to ease sanctions, Rouhani will struggle to convince hardliners in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that his diplomatic strategy is worth it.

Hardliners in Iran

Rouhani will need to keep the more conservative Revolutionary Guards on side, and will need to maintain the approval of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. For the moment, Khamenei’s slightly opaque remarks about the importance of “heroic flexibility” suggest he’s happy to support Rouhani’s efforts, but Khamenei may yet change tack. If Rouhani is able to win concessions from the US quickly and this is reflected in an improved economic outlook in Iran, this will strengthen his position against more conservative forces.

The US and its allies

Obama is keen to avoid confrontation with Iran, particularly given the ongoing Syrian conflict, but he needs to ensure that he isn’t seen to concede ground too easily to Iran. Not only will this reduce the US’s future bargaining position, but it will inflame those in government who are sceptical of Iran’s intentions. Obama will also be aware that if he gives too much ground to Iran, this will worry and anger Israel, who already believe that Obama’s failure to use military force against Syria sets a dangerous precedent.