Rouhani, Obama, and US-Iran Diplomacy: A Nuclear Thaw or a False Start?

With the first signs of a US-Iran thaw, there are great hopes – and great cynicism. Yet while the optimists may be overstating the scope of any deal, the cynics are wrong to dismiss Hasan Rouhani's rhetoric.

In the end, there was no handshake – but there was a phone call. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani first rebuffed the White House's offer of a historic meeting with President Barack Obama but, just before departing the United States, initiated a telephone conversation that was thin on substance but rich in symbolism. That call, along with Rouhani's relentlessly conciliatory tone, has prompted euphoria amongst some, who foresee a geopolitical re-alignment as significant as President Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1971, and alarm in others, who see Rouhani as the mask behind which the Islamic Republic pursues its unchanged objectives. How should we assess his trip, and the prospects for nuclear and broader diplomacy? Below, I suggest four points that emerge from the past week's diplomatic drama.

Has Rouhani Checkmated Obama?

First, the notion that Rouhani has 'checkmated' Obama – as Fouad Ajami put it  – is untenable. The Obama administration has not only given nothing away, but continues to impose upon Iran the most punishing sanctions ever applied to a would-be nuclear proliferator. Iran's oil exports have more that halved in volume over the past year, inflation is around 60 percent, and over a quarter of Iranian youth are unemployed. The idea that Obama is all carrot and no stick is egregiously wrong. In this regard, the opportunity cost of dialogue is negligible.

Is Rouhani All Talk?

Second, some suggest that Rouhani is offering nothing more than empty words – a 'smiley campaign', as Israel's intelligence minister put it - but no concrete actions. This view is also mistaken. Rouhani has already freed more than 80 political prisoners, many of whom were arrested during the 2009 Green Revolution. The Islamic Republic remains an autocratic regime which holds large numbers of political prisoners and commits grave human rights abuses on a regular basis. But the prisoner release is a sign that Rouhani is willing and able to at least partially follow through on pledges he made on his campaign trail.

With respect to the nuclear dispute, Rouhani most important action to date has been to remove the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council - which is more easily influenced by hardliners – and handed it to the more moderate foreign ministry, run by Mohammad Javad Zarif. Western diplomats see Zarif as reasonable and pragmatic, a far cry from previous nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Rouhani could not have changed these arrangements without the approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Indeed, the Washington Post's well-connected columnist David Ignatius reported last week that 'Western intelligence reports' confirmed Rouhani's claim to be 'fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks'. Of course, this claim can only be fully tested at the negotiating table.

Yet it is also important to recognise that Rouhani's supposedly empty rhetoric - his praise for Americans, enthusiasm for dialogue, and exhortations to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to stay out of politics – is not without domestic political cost. If this round of diplomacy comes to nothing, Rouhani will be severely depleted of political capital and Khamenei will happily let him twist in the wind. Words are never enough to strike a deal, but nor should they be discounted too flippantly. They show that Rouhani is willing to anger domestic constituencies in pursuit of his agenda. That is a positive sign.

Are the United States and Iran Reconciling or Accommodating?

Third, any deal that transpires is likely to be a nuclear deal. Those who envision a broader US-Iran rapprochement, including diplomatic normalisation and consensus on security issues across the region (e.g., Iran's support for Hezbollah, or the US military presence in the Persian Gulf), will be sorely disappointed. The grand bargain that Iran proposed in 2003 is history, and regional events have rendered its terms moot. We should recognise that Rouhani's mandate from Khamenei is almost certainly a circumscribed one.

Of course, any nuclear deal may widen the parameters of the possible and create spill-over effects onto other issue-areas. But this will be incremental and modest. Perhaps the likeliest area for such spill-over is Syria. Some officials - including the French foreign minister – have suggested that a US-Iran dialogue could facilitate Iranian participation in a Syrian peace conference (the so-called Geneva II). To the extent that this is so, the process is unlikely to include those most directly responsible for Iranian policy inside Syria i.e., the IRGC.

Is Obama Sacrificing Israeli Interests?

Fourth, Iran's charm offensive appears to have disoriented Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is overplaying his hand. When Netanyahu instructed his diplomats to walk out of Rouhani's address to the UN General Assembly before it had even started, he simply looked petty. He even earned a rebuke from his own centrist finance minister, Yair Lapid, who pointed out that it was 'reminiscent of the ways Arab states behaved towards Israel'.

Netanyahu's government then looked more churlish still when it essentially rebuffed Rouhani's condemnation of the Holocaust – an important and necessary step, after eight years of abhorrent Holocaust denial by former President Ahmadinejad and many others in the Iranian political elite. Israel is entirely correct to point out that such virulent rhetoric was and remains widespread in the Iranian political system, and that Rouhani's ambivalence over the scale of genocide was disturbing. But Rouhani's statement should have been acknowledged as generally positive.

Israel's posture towards the nuclear dispute is also problematic at a deeper level. A document leaked to the Washington Post purported to be an internal Israeli assessment of Iran's strategy in nuclear talks. It set out four 'unequivocal demands' that Israeli officials demanded be met by Iran: stop all nuclear enrichment, dismantle the enrichment plant at Fordow and part of the plant at Natanz, ship out all enriched uranium, and stop construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak.

Many of these are reasonable demands - indeed, they largely follow the terms of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions to which both Russia and China have acquiesced - but stated as such they represent a repudiation of the whole idea of negotiation. They amount to a demand that Iran unconditionally surrender. And, since Israeli officials must know that such capitulation is incredibly unlikely, they carry an unacceptable risk of premature war.

The truth is that Iran could be prevented from building a nuclear weapon by measures short of 'zero enrichment' – for instance, a cap on its level of enrichment and stockpiles rather than an outright prohibition. In particular, any settlement will likely include a recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium, albeit at lower levels. US Secretary of State John Kerry's commitment to talk about 'the parameters of the end game' with Iran is a clear allusion to this – it amounts to an implicit promise of such recognition, and therefore the beginning of an important shift in the Western position. The bottom-line is this: if Iran enriches uranium only to 5 per cent, with caps on how much enriched uranium it can accumulate and intrusive inspections, it will have no realistic prospect of ever dashing for a bomb.
Amos Yadlin, formerly the IDF's chief of Defense Intelligence, has gone against the prevailing current of elite Israeli opinion to argue, persuasively, that Israel should be open to a deal that allows Iranian enrichment:

It is important to define an agreement that even if containing a certain risk that Iran could break out to military nuclear capability either under or in violation of the deal, still represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which is likely leading to an Iranian bomb or to a military move to forestall it.

On top of this, it will also be important to address Iran's past nuclear weapons research - a process that will have to begin with Iran ratifying and re-adhering to the Additional Protocol (AP) it agreed with the IAEA some time ago - and Iran's heavy water rector at Arak, which can provide an alternative route to fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials have reasonable concerns over these issues, and it is true that they tend to be overlooked in mainstream discussions of the Iranian nuclear dispute – but there is no reason to think that the P5+1 will pay any less heed to them in the course of negotiations. There is simply nothing in the past decade of American diplomacy towards this dispute that suggests, as many Israeli officials and analysts have alleged, that the United States will settle for a weak deal: if this were the aim, it could have been achieved many years ago.

The cynical view is that Israel seeks to sabotage nuclear talks. But given that prominent members of Israel's own military and intelligence establishment are sceptical of military action, this isn't so obvious. It seems likelier that Israel is merely reprising its role as the bad cop – setting out a maximalist position in the hope that it forces Obama to drive a harder bargain, and secure a better deal. Indeed, Israel's 'internal' assessment is a curiously simplistic document, which makes no attempt to distinguish between ideal outcomes, opening positions in negotiation, and 'red lines' for a settlement. This indicates that it may be a deliberate leak to shape the impending nuclear diplomacy in Geneva. The danger is that this backfires. As one senior Israeli official told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, 'Netanyahu’s message on Iran is unrefined, arouses opposition and most importantly, is not especially convincing'.

The US and Iran have now both said that they want a rapid resolution of the nuclear dispute. If this is to happen, Rouhani will have to make painful concessions: rolling back Iran's nuclear capability by years (not months), opening up to the IAEA in a way that Iran has hitherto avoided, and selling this to the Iranian public and political elite as a victory. Everyone should be clear: no rhetoric can substitute for these concrete actions, no sanctions relief will be possible until this process begins, and this process will be extremely difficult to sequence. But Rouhani's words are meaningful signals that will lubricate the diplomacy of the coming months, and should not be dismissed out of hand.


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board

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