Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addreses parliament after his swearing-in. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
President Obama has a chance, now that Russia has rescued him from the impending debacle in Syria, to pull off a deal with Iran’s new, reasonable leadership.
Indeed, things are looking so positive for US-Iran relations that it’s hard to imagine how even the amateurs in the White House could screw this one up. Next week, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani—a moderate cleric whose surprise win in the June elections stunned observers—and his equally moderate, diplomacy-minded foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will be in New York to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Rouhani and Zarif will be meeting with the leaders of Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany, it appears, though not—yet—with either Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. (We’ll see, though the White House is throwing cold water on the idea.) But Obama and Rouhani have exchanged letters, contents unknown, and conditions seem ripe for useful, behind-the-scenes talks between the two countries aimed at settling the nuclear dispute, at the very least.
According to Der Spiegel, Rouhani—who has shaken up Iran’s nuclear team and put the foreign ministry, not Iran’s national security council, in charge of the negotiations—may be planning a surprise series of concessions aimed at kick-starting the talks. The German magazine reports:
But the long-smoldering nuclear dispute with Tehran may be about to take a sensational turn. SPIEGEL has learned from intelligence sources that Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is reportedly prepared to decommission the Fordo enrichment plant and allow international inspectors to monitor the removal of the centrifuges. In return, he could demand that the United States and Europe rescind their sanctions against the Islamic Republic, lift the ban on Iranian oil exports and allow the country’s central bank to do international business again.
Spiegel reports that Zarif will meet with the European Union’s chief negotiator, Catherine Ashton, to outline Rouhani’s proposal. There are, of course, plenty of skeptics about the likelihood of a deal, and in any case reaching a real accord will take many meetings and many months. Still, things are looking up.
In Al Monitor, Laura Rozen reports that the US nuclear negotiation team for Iran has been shaken up, too, which could be important if there is to be a new start.
Despite what Spiegel reports, it is certain that Rouhani and Zarif won’t make unilateral concessions, and that the removal of economic sanctions against Iran will be their key demand in any talks. Gary Sick, a veteran Iran watcher at Columbia University who served as President Carter’s chief adviser on Iran, told the Council on Foreign Relations:
Rouhani and Zarif are going to send a message that will be very different [from former President Ahmadinejad]. I suspect that there will be little or no mention of Israel whatsoever in Rouhani’s speech. He will instead be talking about the kind of role that Iran can play, a much more constructive role in international politics. Zarif is extremely well known in New York, Rouhani not, but a lot of people have had a chance to meet him and talk to him—these are not people who are going to simply say, “Okay, we’ll roll over and play dead, and you Americans or the West can get whatever you like from Iran.” That’s truly not the case at all, and anybody who thinks that these guys are patsies and they’re going to simply come and give away the store as far as Iran is concerned is really wrong.
To make progress, says Sick:
In this particular case, what is needed between the United States and Iran is a private meeting, without all the glare of publicity, something called the “heads of agreement”—that is, here’s where we want to go, this is where, at the end of the day, we want to end up, this is what we’re looking for.
In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tom Pickering and Jessica Mathews urge Obama to grasp the opportunity for an accord with Iran’s new leaders:
The election of a new, more moderate president in Iran and the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have set the stage for possible progress on nuclear negotiations. And precisely because the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran poses tremendous security risks for the United States and our allies, the United States must test this opportunity.
And they add:
There are specific steps that the United States will have to take in order to reach an agreement with Iran: First, accept Iran’s nuclear program under transparent and verifiable limits with proper safeguards. Second, be prepared to relax sanctions as Iran takes action.
Of course, the crisis in Syria hangs over everything. Syria is Iran’s chief ally in the region, and it is the fulcrum for a Sunni-Shiite proxy war pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia and its allies. Were the United States to strike Syria, as Obama and Kerry insist is possible despite the ongoing diplomacy, it could undermine Rouhani, strengthen Iran’s hawks and force Iran and its Revolutionary Guard to throw everything into support for President Assad’s government. On the other hand, Iran—as the victim of chemical weapons during its 1980s war with Iraq—is not likely to support Assad’s continued possession of poison gases, and so Obama might find a critical ally in Iran in search of an accord on Syria.
Max Blumenthal reports from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.