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.

Photo: Getty
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No, William Hague, there's nothing anti-democratic about opposing Brexit

The former Tory leader appears to be suffering from a bout of amnesia. 

William Hague just made an eyecatching claim in the House of Lords during the debate over Article 50. He attacked those Remainers still seeking to restore Britain’s European Union membership in general and Tony Blair in particular, saying that if he had called on voters to “rise up” against New Labour after he lost the election, Blair would have told him to listen to the voters.

To be fair to Hague, it has been sixteen years since he went down to crushing defeat to Blair, so he may have forgotten some of the details. Happily, the full text of his resignation speech the morning after is still online.

Here’s Hague, 2001:

"The people have spoken. And just as it is vital to encourage everyone to participate in our democracy, so it is important to understand and respect the result. The Labour party have won the election and I have already congratulated them on doing so. But they have done so without great public enthusiasm….It is therefore a vital task for the Conservative party in the coming parliament to hold the government to account for the promises they have made and the trust people have placed in it.”

And here’s Blair, 2017:

“I want to be explicit. Yes, the British people voted to leave Europe. And I agree the will of the people should prevail. I accept right now there is no widespread appetite to re-think. But the people voted without knowledge of the terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”

And here’s Blair’s last line which has so offended William Hague:

“This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe – calmly, patiently, winning the argument by the force of argument; but without fear and with the conviction we act in the true interests of Britain.”

This is funny, because here’s William Hague’s last line in 2001:

"I wish I could have led you to victory but now we must all work for our victories in the future.”

 Here’s what the “you lost, get over it” crowd have to explain: what is the difference between these two speeches? Both acknowledge a defeat, acknowledge the mountain to climb for the defeated side, but resolve to work harder to secure a better result next time.

It’s particularly galling when you remember that taking Britain back in would not require a second referendum but a third: because the Brexiteers, far from losing in 1975 and getting over it, spent four decades gearing up to take Britain out of the European Union.

There’s a more valid criticism to be had of the value of a continuity Remain campaign which appears to hold many of the people who voted to Leave in distaste. Certainly, at present, the various pro-Remain forces look more like the unattractive fringe that lost in 1975 than the well-disciplined machine that won the replay in 2016. But the fact there was a replay in the first place shows that there’s nothing anti-democratic about continuing to hold on to your beliefs after a defeat. What is anti-democratic is trying to claim that the result of any electoral contest, however narrow or how large, means that everyone who disagreed with you has to shut up and pretend you were right all along. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.