The United States and Iran have put off hard decisions on a nuclear compromise for another four months. The gap between the U.S. and Iranian positions was evidently wide enough to prevent the signing of a deal during a particularly eventful week of global crises. With this delay, the United States and Iran have made it harder for themselves to curb domestic resistance to a deal.
For such a complex negotiation, the fundamental disagreement between the two sides is fairly straightforward. The International Atomic Energy Agency already has verified that so far Iran has cooperated, halting enrichment and converting its existing stockpile of highly enriched uranium to uranium oxide. The next step will be for Iran to turn that uranium oxide into nuclear fuel over the next four months for use in power plants and research reactors, bringing the country's enrichment activity more in line with a civilian nuclear program.
Iran believes it has resolved the most controversial aspect of its nuclear program and therefore should get significant sanctions relief. But from the U.S. point of view, Iran's work over the past six months and a promise to continue to comply for at least seven years simply is not good enough. As far as Washington is concerned, Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue must entail a fundamental and irreversible sacrifice of its enrichment abilities. The United States says that would mean Iran would have fewer than 10,000 working centrifuges in its possession for a decade. Iran says seven years is more than enough, and after that it will have to enrich uranium on an industrial scale once its contract with Russia for the supply of nuclear fuel expires.
There are creative and face-saving solutions to the problems, but there will also be more challenges ahead. On the U.S. front, President Barack Obama faces midterm elections in November and nagging legislation in Congress that would tighten the terms for a deal with Iran. Iran is one of many issues his opponents will use to differentiate their foreign policy stances in election season, making it all the more imperative for Obama to have a framework sealed before the incoming 114th Congress convenes in January. Even then, Obama will have to rely on his executive authority to push a deal along.
But that pales in comparison to the challenge Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made it a point to publicly harden Iran's negotiating position in the days leading up to the July 20 deadline, telling his followers in Iran as well as Western negotiators that Iran will maintain its supply of 10,000 working centrifuges, if not more. Rouhani must reason with the supreme leader while also keeping a lid on resistance to a nuclear deal from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at a time when the corps has gained new life from the crisis in Iraq. Rouhani's ability to navigate challenges to his foreign policy legacy may come down to a battle of influence between two men: Qassem Soleimani, Iran's commander of the corps' elite Quds Force, and Ali Shamkhani, Iran's secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
Shamkhani, 59, and Soleimani, 57, come from the same generation of military men that helped start the Islamic Revolution, which they see as their honor and responsibility to defend. Since the revolution, both men have commanded great respect through their ruthless work ethic. Whether nurturing Hezbollah, funneling rockets to Hamas in Gaza or preventing the collapse of the Syrian regime, Soleimani — who goes by Haj Qassem — made his career in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Shamkhani, who goes by "Admiral," also started in the corps, where he served as a commander of the corps' navy, then defense minister and as a personal military adviser to Khamenei.
Soleimani is often regarded as Iran's enigmatic problem solver, the man who lives in the shadows running Iran's most sensitive covert operations to carve a regional sphere of influence from Herat to Beirut. But Soleimani's record is not spotless. It was under his watch that a few demonstrations in Syria evolved into a full-blown civil war that endangered Hezbollah, sucked up Iranian resources and spread into Iraq. And it was Soleimani who played a lead role in engineering the last Iraqi government under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki, whose narrow policies have thrown Iraq into another sectarian crisis.
Rouhani has no choice but to reinforce Iraq's fragile army with Shiite militiamen to protect Iranian interests in the country. That policy comes with the risk, however, that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will use this mission to expand its political influence and possibly create more divisions between Iran and the United States in this crucial negotiating period.
That's where Shamkhani comes in. With his roots in the corps, his experience as defense minister and his current role as national security chief, Shamkhani outranks Soleimani by a considerable degree. It was primarily under the eight-year tenure of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Soleimani gained a disproportionate amount of influence through his command over the Quds Force. Under Rouhani's presidency, Soleimani has been denied the same level of influence in Iran's foreign policy.
Notably, it has been Shamkhani, not Soleimani, who has been meeting frequently with political factions from across Iraq's sectarian landscape in a bid to bring the Sunnis back to the negotiating table, keep the Kurds contained and keep the Shia from fracturing. This is no small task, but Shamkhani, who belongs to the same camp of pragmatic conservatives as Rouhani and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, seems to have been given the diplomatic mandate to untie this knot in Baghdad.
Personality politics can often be distracting in assessing geopolitical outcomes, but in this case, a competition of influence between Soleimani and Shamkhani may help us gauge Iran's ability to navigate political minefields over the next four months. We presume it is Rouhani's hope that a diplomatic success by Shamkhani in Iraq will lessen Tehran's reliance on Soleimani, thus giving the Iranian president slightly more flexibility in the nuclear negotiations.