Behind the scenes at US-Iran talks

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

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.
 

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

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism