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 Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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