President Obama has now confirmed that he has indeed exchanged letters with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rowhani. It is but one of a flurry of recent signals that the United States and Iran are considering direct talks in an effort to see if they can diplomatically resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
Asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in an interview that aired on September 15 if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president, Obama said: “I have. And he’s reached out to me.”
Obama told ABC that “my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran. On the other hand, what… they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
Rumors abound of a possible “impromptu” corridor encounter between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York. (The White House has officially denied any plans for a meeting between Obama and Rowhani when both leaders address the U.N. body September 24.)
Meantime, Iran’s hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly endorsed diplomacy, in a speech to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on September 16. “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy,” Khamenei reportedly said. “I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility.’”
Then, most bewildering of all, there are the Rosh Hashanah greetings that Rowhani and Zarif issued over Twitter earlier in September, spurring both stunned amazement and some skepticism in the social media and policy universes.
Watching the signs of outreach and openness for dialogue between the United States and Iran with increasing anxiety is Israel, perpetually worried that the Americans will be duped by the new Iranian leaders’ public relations savvy and diplomatic skills — light years better than those of their Holocaust denying predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But American officials have been adamant that they will not be fooled by Twitter diplomacy. What they are looking for from Iran is action — not words, they say; concrete, substantive agreement to ensure that Iran is not able to reach a “breakout” capability to make a nuclear bomb.
Rowhani has at numerous times indicated that he is willing to bring more transparency to the Iranian nuclear program, but not to halt Iran’s lower-level enrichment. While more nuclear transparency is welcome, it is not enough, an American official told me recently. Iran would also need to accept some limits on its enrichment program to reassure the international community that it could not “break out” and produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon using declared facilities under regular inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Also recently, Iranian sources close to the new Iranian leadership suggested in consultations in Washington that Iran would be willing to limit the number of its centrifuges, but not the quality of them; to cap enrichment at 5%; to accept a more intrusive IAEA inspection and safeguards regime, and to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, all in return for significant sanctions relief, recognition of its legal right to enrich for energy purposes and additional, unspecified incentives put forward by three European powers a decade ago.
One Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, suggested recently that Iran may be willing to reduce the number of its centrifuges to 3,500 — it currently has about 18,000. But it would like to keep the fortified underground enrichment facility at Qom, while the Natanz facility, the above ground enrichment site where Iran has some 15,000 centrifuges, is up for negotiation.
While such a proposal may meet United States’ requirements that Iran’s nuclear program be sufficiently monitored and limited to prevent a nuclear breakout capacity, it’s not clear it will meet Israel’s.
The White House has announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Obama in Washington on September 30 before addressing the General Assembly.
“I intend to focus on stopping the Iranian nuclear program, really stopping the nuclear program,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet. Among his demands are that Iran halt all uranium enrichment, remove all its stockpile of enriched uranium from the country, close the Qom enrichment facility and stop construction of its plutonium reactor at Arak.
“The Israelis fear that they understand the world is full of evil people, but the Obama administration only sees the world full of friends they haven’t made yet,” said Jon Alterman, head of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Meantime, hawkish groups are working with the Senate banking committee to press for legislation that would impose a de facto embargo on Iran, while Senator Lindsey Graham is proposing legislation that would authorize the use of military force against Iran.
Despite the new, more positive mood between Washington and Tehran, Iran’s new leaders likely need to offer something enticing, and soon, for Obama to be able to sell a deal back home, to Congress and abroad to Israel.