Will Iran's New President Defuse the Nuclear Crisis?

White House Diplomatic Approach May Still Pay Off

Change?: Rowhani’s election in early July might signal a shift from his bellicose predecessor.
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Change?: Rowhani’s election in early July might signal a shift from his bellicose predecessor.

By Laura Rozen

Published July 21, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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Rowhani also suggested that he was open to improving relations with the United States. “The Iranian people… will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States” if the United States pledges to not interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs, Rowhani said.

American officials said that though they appreciate the changed rhetoric, what’s needed is more than nice words. “We have all noted Rowhani’s positive tone and remarks postelection,” the senior official said. “We are glad for the positive words. But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously…. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American diplomat spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the so-called P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — in Brussels on July 16 to discuss resuming nuclear talks with Iran in the fall, after Rowhani’s inauguration in August.

The six world powers are likely to ask the new Iranian nuclear negotiating team assembled by Rowhani to respond to a confidence-building proposal they presented to Iran at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, last February, the official said. The proposal calls on Iran to suspend all enrichment above the 5% needed to fuel power reactors; to convert its existing 20% enriched uranium into fuel for a research reactor and export or dilute the rest; to cease operations at the underground Fordow enrichment facility, and to permit enhanced inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, it offers relief from United States and European Union sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales; the licensing of American repairs to Iran civilian aircraft; as well as a promise to impose no new United Nations or EU sanctions.

American officials say they are open to negotiating with Iran over the package, but want a detailed response before “negotiating with ourselves” to redo the offer. “The onus is on Iran to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

Some Iran experts argue that Washington should try to seize the rare hopeful moment by preparing a bolder offer to Iran. “The administration ought to be going into these talks with an open mind, and thoughts about how this negotiating process can be most usefully advanced,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “I would tend to believe that the political openings that have been clearly articulated by the administration and subsequent comments from Iran really do create some incentive for returning to the table with a more creative package.”

The United States would like to open direct talks with Iran, the official said, noting this is a message that has been communicated both publicly and privately to Iran in recent months. One possibility that officials of the United States are mulling is sending a new message to Iran reiterating the offer for direct talks, potentially on the occasion of Rowhani’s inauguration in August.

“We are open to direct talks,” the senior administration official said. “We think they would be valuable…. We will reinforce that in any appropriate way we can.”

But not everyone sees Rowhani’s election as a positive development.

For Israel, Rowhani’s appearance of moderation presents a different challenge compared with his rash — and easily vilified — predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his Holocaust denial and general bellicosity, even as in his second term he sought, unsuccessfully, to make his own nuclear deal with the West. Rowhani is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” who would “smile and build a bomb,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on CBS’s Face the Nation on July 14. “We’re closer than the United States. We’re more vulnerable. And therefore, we’ll have to address this question of how to stop Iran, perhaps before the United States does.”

Laura Rozen writes the Back Channel column for Al-Monitor. You can follow her on Twitter at @lrozen


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