For those of us tracing the arc of the Obama presidency, one can’t help but get the feeling things are about to come full circle in terms of Iran. Recall President Obama’s early appeal to the Muslim world, the speech that helped him win his much-maligned Nobel Peace Prize, and his letters to Ayatollah Khamenei in which he made the case for US-Iranian engagement. These early efforts were wiped out by subsequent events, mainly the 2009 post-election crackdown and the continued intransigence of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But now it looks like the stars are aligned for one more diplomatic push, and this time it’s the Iranians who are writing the letters.
Newly-minted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has written a series of dovish letters to his counterpart in Washington. Rouhani emerged victorious in elections earlier this year, and though he is not considered to be a fervent reformer (all such candidates were removed from the ballot), he is sufficiently reform-minded to have secured the support of key reformers such as former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. According to several media outlets, President Rouhani’s letters were met in kind with cautiously optimistic responses from President Obama.
Their correspondence has been building up to next week’s United Nations general assembly. Though there are still no official meetings scheduled to take place between the two leaders, there is a growing sense of optimism that somewhere amidst the speeches and backroom diplomacy, a new round of détente will emerge between the two longstanding adversaries.
There is reason to believe that a new diplomatic push on the nuclear issue could bear fruit where others have wilted on the vine.
The personalities involved are more aligned for success this time around. Gone is the obstacle of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a figure who had neither the charisma nor credibility to negotiate in good faith. And at the other side of the negotiating table, President Obama’s desire for engagement has been evident since the start of his first term. But most importantly, there are indications that Ayatollah Khamenei is on board this time as well, which is a definite prerequisite for any workable deal. According to Amir Mohebbian, a longtime advisor and expert on Iranian politics, Khamenei is concerned about the future of the Iranian Revolution, and has made a priority of mending Iran’s relationship with the Western world. This has resulted in President Rouhani being granted a wide berth with which to conduct his negotiations.
The Obama administration will be tempted to provide an early indication of progress. They will be cognizant of the tenuous nature of President Rouhani’s position within the Iranian political establishment, and as such, they will be tempted to throw him a bone early on as a way to pre-empt any attempt by Iranian hardliners to pull the rug out from under Rouhani’s diplomatic push. One of Rouhani’s letters echoed these concerns by pointing out that Iranian public opinion doesn’t favor talks. He also requested an early show of good faith to “prepare the grounds for successful negotiations.”
Of course, the real question is how far Iran is willing to scale back its nuclear activities in order to ease international fears of the program’s eventual weaponization. If we were to go by some of President Rouhani’s public statements in Iran, the answer would be “not very far.” Or to be even more specific, Rouhani isn’t willing to give up “one iota” of his country’s nuclear rights according to a speech he gave in early September. Whether his interpretation of these rights includes enrichment activities remains to be seen, but it’s highly unlikely that the Rouhani administration would burn through its own political capital under the foolhardy assumption that large-scale enrichment activities could survive a nuclear accord.
What Iran is willing to give up is directly tied to its own security outlook, and this has been in flux of late. If we assume that Iran has been using its civilian nuclear program as a front to acquire nuclear weapons, Tehran would be motivated in large part by its own security, particularly the need to protect itself from a US or Israeli-led strike aimed at inducing a regime change. But the geopolitical situation in the Middle East has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. The newly energy-flush United States is less willing to project its power into this volatile region, and a cursory look at US government fiscal projections for the next decade suggests that it will be less able to do so in the future as well. Iran has also shored up its geopolitical position, increasing the regional costs of a US strike. Iraq is now a major ally where a bitter foe once stood, and though longstanding ally al-Assad is currently fighting for his regime’s existence, the Syrian civil war becomes less a political conflict and more a sectarian one by the day. With fundamentalist insurgencies festering in both Syria and Iraq, Tehran is paradoxically cast as a force for stability in the region vis-à-vis state collapse and anarchy. This is a billing that Rouhani is eager to play up, as evidenced by his very public attempts to broker peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition forces.
There will also be major headwinds in nuclear talks. For one, regardless of any early bone the Obama administration decides to throw, the US side will proceed at a slow and cautious pace, with little appetite for ambiguity or delaying tactics from the Iranians. Given that suspicion over Iran’s motives is one of those rare principles that can bridge the otherwise oceanic partisan divide of Washington, there will be no shortage of powerful interests waiting to pounce on the Obama administration at the first sign of Iranian duplicity.
The other countervailing force comes from the country with the most to lose from US-Iranian rapprochement: Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone on the offensive ahead of this week’s general assembly, asserting that “the Iranians are continuing to deceive so that the centrifuges continue spinning.” A deal between the US and Iran would come as a serious blow to the credibility of Israeli military action should the Iranian regime cross the “red line” of a 250 kg stockpile of enriched uranium (the Iranians have yet to cross it). Thus, the Israeli government will remain ever vigilant for signs of Iranian deceit and simultaneously push the US to adopt a negotiating position in synch with its own (halt enrichment activities; remove enriched materials; and shutdown the Fordo facility at Qom). Their pleas may fall on death ears however as President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are about as antagonistic on a personal level as two allies could possibly be.
The sum of all these contributing factors indicates a very delicate negotiating process, though one that could still result in a deal being done. The potential for success is a direct factor of the economic dire straits that Iran currently finds itself in, as well as the decreasing likelihood of a Western military strike in the future. These considerations could feasibly push Tehran into accepting what will doubtlessly form the crux of any US offer: a verifiable shutdown of the enrichment facilities at Qom and Natanz, paired with a substantial reduction of its existing enriched uranium stockpile.
This will probably be the final window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program. Though the issue has fallen from international news headlines, it is still only a matter of years, maybe even months, before Iran has either reached the threshold where it could make a sudden entrance into the nuclear weapons club, or has been made the target of a perilous unilateral strike by Israel and possibly the United States.
The stakes are high as all eyes fall on New York.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to the Geopoliticalmonitor.com