“For the West to become confident about our peaceful nuclear activities and for us to get our rights and get past the effects of sanctions and the difficult path the enemy has prepared for us, there is only one way, and it is negotiations,” Hassan Rowhani, a former senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, told an Iranian news agency.
But in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s many rivals are loath to give him space to make a settlement, which would allow him to take a measure of credit for mending relations with the United States before his final term ends in the summer.
“While the Supreme Leader has final say on the nuclear issue, the next president would at least initially be able to enter the scene with some fresh ideas and have room for maneuvering,” Iranian political analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani said in an e-mail.
In any case, Iran is unlikely to accept a deal that does not include clear timelines for sanctions relief, which would be key to gaining public support for a settlement, Iranian policymakers and analysts say.
Mounting international sanctions have hampered Iran’s ability to sell oil abroad and transact with foreign banks. The economic ripple effects have caused shortages of food, medicine and imported gasoline, the latter of which has been replaced by low-quality fuel that is contributing to air pollution blamed for hundreds of recent deaths.
“There are sufficient forces in the Iranian society to push for change in relations, but . . . only if the United States also shows flexibility on the nuclear issue and abandons aspects of policies that have so far failed to force Iran to bend,” says Farideh Farhi, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii who specializes in Iran.
But just who in Iran would make any decision to bend remains unclear.
Iranian foreign policy was long thought to lie solely in the hands of its supreme leader. Over time, though, the pragmatism required for Iran to grow economically, militarily and politically in an unstable region replaced many of the regime’s more fundamental tendencies and widened the field of domestic players, who often have diverging interests.
Today, with opposing political factions seeking to advance their own agendas, what is often perceived abroad as mixed signals from Iranian leaders is actually a set of competition visions for Iran’s diplomatic future.
U.S. officials still have difficulty understanding the decisions and fragmented leadership that influence Iran’s foreign policy, 34 years after diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran were severed, analysts say.
On many occasions in the past, an agreement briefly appeared to be within reach but evaporated as opposition to a deal mounted in Iran.
The question is whether Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has both the political backing for a deal and the stomach for painful concessions, said Dennis Ross, a former top adviser to the Obama administration on Iran. Ross said he thinks the odds are not favorable.
“Does Khamenei widen his circle of decision-making so that he can take this reasonable step?” Ross asked. “I’d put it at less than 50-50.”