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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With Syria peace talks on hold, and John Kerry’s efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations uncertain, the most positive development to emerge from the Middle East this summer may be the surprise election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president.

Even as Washington takes a cautious, wait-and-see attitude to prospects for a nuclear deal under the more moderate Rowhani, American policymakers say his election victory against more hard-line rivals is a sign that President Obama’s policy of diplomacy plus sanctions is working. The question now is how best to seize the diplomatic opening Rowhani’s election presents to advance prospects for a nuclear deal, given the history of deep mistrust and hostility that has plagued Iranian-US relations for over three decades.

According to a senior American administration offical who provided a background briefing in mid-July to a small group of journalists, the part that sanctions played during the presidential campaign — and particularly the public debates — offered proof that, “sanctions do matter, and played a significant role” in Iranians voting for Rowhani.

Rowhani, 64, a cleric and lawyer, served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator under the more moderate Iranian presidency of Mohammad Khatami, during which time Iran suspended its uranium enrichment from 2004 to 2005. Running on a campaign slogan of prudence and moderation, Rowhani pledged to try to ease Iran’s standoff with the international community and to improve the country’s sanctions-strained economy. Among the candidates he defeated was Iran’s outgoing nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a hard-liner who ran on a campaign of “resistance” against Western economic pressure over Iran’s nuclear program.

As a journalist who has covered the past two years of international nuclear negotiations with Iran in far-flung locales — Kazakhstan, Baghdad, Moscow, Turkey — and sat through many of Jalili’s tedious press conferences where no progress in closing the gaps between the two sides was made, I found myself idly hoping only that Jalili would not win the election. I did not begin to hope that Rowhani, the most moderate of the eight candidates permitted by Iran’s Guardian Council to run, would win, and be permitted to win. Rowhani’s words since his election victory have also given hope that a diplomatic resolution may be found to one of the most pressing security challenges the United States and its ally Israel face in the coming year.

At a press conference after his election victory in June, Rowhani said that Iran would not give up enrichment for the country’s energy program, but he also said he was prepared to find other ways to address the international community’s concerns that Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons..

“Our nuclear program is transparent, but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” Rowhani said at the June 17 press conference.

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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