What Obama's Re-Election Means for U.S.-Iran Negotiations

The Islamic Republic should realize an agreement with the United States will allow it to survive.

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In this Monday, Oct. 15, 2012 photo, released by an official website of the Iranian supreme leader's office, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a large group of Basij militia, not shown, during a tour of northeastern Iran. Iranian officials have made no secret about their desire to reopen nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers as economic sanctions dig deeper -- with Iran's supreme leader even depicting his envoys as waiting at the negotiating table.

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on Iran, and is the author of a 2007 book Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.

Optimism when it comes to diplomacy with Iran is usually misplaced. But the re-election of Barack Obama has opened a new window for negotiations with the Islamic Republic and there is reason for modest hope that the current crisis over Iran's nuclear advancement can be defused.

Had Mitt Romney won on November 6, both U.S. and Iranian diplomats would have been loath to make concessions to seal a deal that an incoming Republican administration might have repudiated. The new Romney team would also have taken several months to get organized—and then likely ordered a review of Obama's Iran policy—while Iran would have continued to install more centrifuges and pile up ever more quantities of enriched uranium.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Instead, there is a chance to climb down from crisis. A re-elected Obama has greater flexibility to cut a deal, while the Iranians have the comfort of dealing with a known quantity.

U.S. officials, moreover, have said they are eager to meet with Iranian counterparts one-on-one outside the constrictive formula of previous multilateral talks grouping Iran and the P5 + —the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. At his press conference November 14, Obama said, "We want to get this resolved, and we're not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols. If Iran is serious about wanting to resolve this, they'll be in a position to resolve it."

There are at least three other factors that improve the prospects for a deal, or at least a partial agreement that curbs Iran's higher levels of uranium enrichment in return for some rollback of sanctions.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

Sanctions, especially the European embargo on Iranian oil and the U.S.-imposed cutoff on transactions involving Iran's Central Bank, are inflicting brutal pain on the Iranian economy, collapsing the currency and oil exports, provoking high inflation and unemployment. Iranian leaders suppressed the largely upper middle class Green Movement that erupted after disputed 2009 presidential elections. But they cannot be oblivious to potential protests emanating from the regime's core constituency of the working class and the poor. 

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's controversial and counterproductive president since 2005, leaves office next summer and has already been marginalized. Ahmadinejad—who periodically states his willingness to negotiate with the United States while making threats against Israel that negate his overtures—is less able to play the spoiler or to benefit from a U.S.-Iran agreement to strengthen his dwindling political faction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawk of hawks on Iran, faces persistent opposition from the Israeli military and intelligence establishment to war with Iran and has opened himself to domestic criticism for seeming to side with Romney against Obama. Netanyahu is still favored to remain prime minister after the January 22 Israeli elections, but his ability to pressure Obama into attacking Iran is much diminished. In addition, he is consumed at present with a new mini-war with Hamas in Gaza as well as the need to shore up Israel's shaky peace with Egypt. Israel also worries about stability in Jordan and the outcome of the civil war in Syria. That puts the Iran threat on the back burner.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Discourage Israel From Attacking Iran?]

These factors collide with chronic obstacles to progress with Iran. 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power since 1989, has based his leadership to a large extent on hostility toward the United States. He does not want a Soviet or Chinese-style détente that will open his country even more to the subversive influences of American culture, which he regards as a much bigger threat than U.S. bombs. 

On the American side, Congress keeps pushing for even more draconian sanctions against Iran—no matter the impact on ordinary Iranians and the toll that sanctions take on future U.S.-Iran ties. Iranian officials are right to question whether Obama will be able to roll back this onslaught even if they compromise on the nuclear front. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

On both sides, however, there is a shared desire to avoid a slide into open conflict.

Obama's number one priority is reaching a deal with Congress that avoids the fiscal cliff. A third major war in the Middle East would destroy his chances to begin to balance the U.S. budget and speed up economic growth.  

Iran, for all its vaunted talk of independence from the world's only superpower, is in far worse shape than the United States and Europe and needs a stronger global economy to raise demand for oil. Khamenei, who is 73, must also begin to think of his legacy. A deal with the United States that allows the Islamic Republic of Iran to survive—and hopefully, evolve in a less authoritarian direction—is ultimately in the Supreme Leader's interests, as well as those of his long-suffering people. 

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