There has been no official announcement, but the negotiations that started in Geneva last year may have landed Iran with two governments.
The de jure government is headed by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei and his entourage acting behind a façade that includes the presidency and the Islamic Majlis (parliament). Its authority and responsibility are defined in the Constitution which, though often violated, remains a point of reference.
A de facto government has emerged alongside that de jure government in the shape of a bizarre animal named the P5+1 group. By buying into the so-called Geneva agreement, or “Joint Plan of Action,” the de jure government implicitly recognized the authority of the de facto government on a range of issues. The seven month extension of the joint action plan in Vienna last week reaffirmed that.
The P5+1 have been granted the right of oversight on a range of issues. In diplomatic jargon, this is called “droit de regard,” a French term applied when a nation grants outside powers a say in its affairs. Though it does not amount to a veto, droit de regard allows outsiders scope for shaping a nation’s policies.
What are the rights that Tehran has implicitly granted to this parallel, or de facto, outside authority?
The first is the right to impose sanctions.
Under Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad, Iran’s position was that the six layers of sanctions imposed most notably by the United States and the European Union were both illegal and unjust. Iran demanded their lifting outright as a precondition for negotiating on other subjects, notably the nuclear issue.
Under President Rouhani, those sanctions are still regarded as unjust, but no longer as illegal.
Rouhani’s implicit acceptance of the legality of the sanctions is demonstrated by his readiness to link their abrogation to concessions by Iran. Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran granted 23 concessions in exchange for 11 promises from the P5+1, legalizing the sanctions.
The P5+1 speaks of keeping the sanctions in place for anything up to 25 years, to test Iran’s goodwill. Rouhani wants to shorten that to five years. But if something is illegal for 25 years it must also be illegal for five years, or five minutes for that matter.
Something else has also happened.
Under Khatami and Ahmadinejad, Iran regarded the encounter with the P5+1 as an exchange of views, not formal negotiations. The Iranian side was never led by a Cabinet minister who represented national sovereignty but by an appointed official whose task was to listen to the views of the P5+1 and inform them of Iran’s views but not to conduct negotiations affecting national sovereignty.
That method was not chosen because Khatami and Ahmadinejad wanted to be awkward. They acted in accordance with diplomatic practice established since the Treaties of Westphalia in the 17th century. As a sovereign nation, Iran cannot negotiate with an informal body that lacks any legal status.
The P5+1 is an ad hoc group that succeeded the so-called EU+3 consisting of the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany. The P5+1 was born in the residence of then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in London in 2006. Neither version of this ad hoc group secured any legal status. It has no mandate from the United Nations, the European Union or even individual member states.
Khatami and Ahmadinejad knew that international treaties are negotiated and, if possible, concluded on the basis of strict legal equality between the parties concerned, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
If nothing was signed in Geneva last year or in Vienna last week it is because the P5+1 have no authority to sign anything on behalf of anybody. All that the P5+1 can do is to recommend steps to their respective governments. We shall face the same situation in seven months’ time.
Having ceded part of its sovereignty, Iran has found itself on a slippery slope to further losses in that respect.
Here are just a few instances:
• The P5+1 have a say in how much oil Iran is allowed to export.
• They have a say in how much of its oil income Iran can access at any given time.
• They decide what Iran should spend its own money on.
• With talk of “dual use,” they influence Iranian industrial policy across the board by controlling imports of technology, machinery and spare-parts even for civilian purposes.
• Through inspection of ships and airliners, they exercise “oversight” on Iranian exports and imports.(Last year the German Customs office seized dozens of cargoes destined for Iran.)
• The group restricts and modulates Iran’s access to capital markets while supervising Iranian foreign payments through measures against the Central Bank of Iran.
• More than 4,000 projects are frozen in Iran because foreign companies are not prepared to invest or provide the technology needed until sanctions are lifted. (On Monday Rouhani told a TV station in Tehran that foreign companies told him that nothing can be done until sanctions are lifted).
• Even foreign nations not involved in the sanctions system observe them in practice. India withdrew from a project for a gas pipeline from Iran. China dropped out of a scheme to develop a major Iranian port on the Gulf of Oman. Japan withdrew from a giant petrochemical project.
• The Iranian foreign minister is obliged to report to the P5+1 periodically. Remarkably, he does not report to the Iranian parliament.
• Using the nuclear issue, the group seeks a say in Iran’s armament industries, ostensibly to prevent development of missile warheads capable of carrying nuclear payloads.
• They decide which Iranian students abroad can receive stipends.
• They decide how much uranium Iran can enrich and to what degree.
• They decide which Iranian officials and businessmen are allowed to travel abroad.
• They decide what international conferences Iranian scientists can attend.
• They have a say in who Iran appoints as ambassadors. Four nominations were vetoed last year, including that of the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations.
What is remarkable is that while Iran has frozen its nuclear industry since last year, the P5+1 has allowed the sanctions’ machine to continue operating as before. Since November 2013, the US and the EU have decreed 108 new sanctions against Iranian companies, businessmen, scientists and even universities while imposing fines on 13 international banks and companies for dealing with Iran.
True, the P5+1 agreed to release some 7 billion US dollars in frozen Iranian assets. At the time of writing this article, 4.8 billion US dollars have actually been released. However, in the same period, a further 12 billion US dollars of Iranian income has been frozen. From now until July, the P5+1 will release 700 million US dollars a month while, at the same time, freezing 1 billion US dollars each month. This means a net total of 300 million US dollars of Iranian assets being frozen each and every month.
Is it not time for Iranians to ponder the consequences of a policy that could put their nation under foreign tutelage for years, if not decades?