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To predict nuclear talks, watch Iran’s domestic politics closely

    Hassan Rouhani (Photo: AP)
    Hassan Rouhani (Photo: AP)

    Iran’s foreign policy in 2014 is likely to be more chaotic than it was this year.

    The reason is that Iran’s domestic politics is likely to be more chaotic in 2014, and in Iran, like in many other countries, foreign policy is an extension of what happens at home.

    This means that when it comes to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, we are likely to see an increasing number of differences between the two sides and even temporary walkouts by the Iranian side.

    President Hassan Rouhani has many political enemies in Iran, mainly among the Conservatives. In fact, one could say that his enemies at home are more numerous and insatiable than his enemies abroad. In 2014, they will look to make life as difficult as possible for him because they do not want his administration to have the legacy of saving Iran’s economy while improving its stance abroad. And this will hit Mr Rouhani’s room for manoeuvre at the nuclear talks.

    Whether this will cause the talks to break down depends on Iran’s most powerful man, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In all likelihood, Mr Khamenei is likely to allow the criticisms of Mr Rouhani to continue, because he does not want to alienate his Conservative supporters. However, he will not allow the attacks to reach a stage that could cause the breakdown of the talks.

    Iran walking away from the negotiations with the P5+1 could justify more sanctions from the US, further endangering the economy. This is a risk that the Supreme Leader is unlikely to take.

    However, what we are likely to see is an extension to the six-month period allowed for the interim agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva on November 24. Six months is unlikely to be enough for both sides to take all the required steps and subsequent verifications. Not to mention the further negotiations required for the implementation of the Geneva deal.

    Iranian infighting could also impact Mr Rouhani’s intended rapprochement with the Gulf states, especially the Saudis. Many Conservatives, especially those affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, see the Saudis and their Gulf allies as Iran’s sworn enemy in the region, especially in Syria.

    When it comes to Syria, like in 2013, we are likely to see the politically conservative Revolutionary Guards having more of a say than the government. However, the recent strengthening of extremist Islamist groups in Syria could push more Western countries to want to see a strengthened Bashar al-Assad. This unexpected area of common interest could give Mr Rouhani’s efforts to improve relations with the West a boost. It could also strengthen Iran’s hand in the region.

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