Iran: The Rouhani Checkmate

Iran President Hassan Rouhani’s bold move to reach a historic agreement with the United States and the other five powers, opening the way to removing the festering sore of US-Iran enmity, is in line with his personal history of rescuing Iranian diplomacy from crisis with the West

Gareth Porter Virginia 

In a historic deal and a marathon round of negotiations later, Iran entered into an accord with six world powers on a plan of action that seeks to put a long list of “voluntary” limits on its nuclear programme, including disposal of most of the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. The imposition of the current accord stands for six months, ensuring no “further advances” at the Arak heavy water reactor, in return for very limited and reversible lifting of sanctions. The agreement also called for negotiation of a “comprehensive solution” that would involve a “mutually defined enrichment programme” and allow Iran to “fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” under the NPT and would produce a “comprehensive” lifting of all sanctions against Iran on account of its nuclear programme.

At first glance, Iran appeared to give up much of its negotiating leverage in the interim agreement by agreeing not just to “freeze” its enrichment programme but to scale back its stockpile of the 20 percent enriched uranium that was the primary proliferation concern of the Obama administration, and by conceding much of the more intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring system demanded by the West. But those concessions were “voluntary” and good for six months, so they remained a factor in the broader bargaining dynamics that would be in play in negotiations on a “comprehensive solution”. Iran had made such voluntary concessions in conjunction with the negotiations with the European foreign ministers, and Iran had later withdrawn concessions when they concluded that the Europeans were not acting in good faith. The newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was prepared to do the same if he concluded that the United States and its partners were not negotiating in good faith in the subsequent phase of the negotiations.

Despite the substantive negotiating chips that Iran could still play in the talks on a “comprehensive solution”, however, the success of the new sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors in sending Iran’s economy into a downward spiral was a structural factor that could be a serious drag on the negotiations. The United States had long depended on its status as the dominant military power to allow it to carry out “coercive diplomacy” with Iran, and the threat of an attack on Iran was central to US policy under the Bush administration. But that threat had lost its credibility over the years, as it became clear that the US military was opposed to war with Iran over its nuclear programme. After the new system sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors with European and Asian states in 2012 created economic turmoil in Iran, however, Obama administration officials appear to have viewed it as a diplomatic trump card equivalent to — or even more effective than — the “military option” that it had lost. In their briefing for journalists on the “first step” agreement, senior US officials repeatedly hinted that the administration was not assuming that it would reach a final agreement with Iran, despite the evidence of Iranian willingness to agree to limitations on an enrichment programme that would provide assurances against any effort to obtain a nuclear weapon. Those hints appeared to reflect a belief that it could use its new-found leverage over Iran to maintain a longer-term power advantage over the Islamic Republic, which would reduce the likelihood that the administration would actually complete a comprehensive agreement with Iran.

The build-up

In mid-October, the Iranian negotiating team, headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif, presented a comprehensive framework for an agreement on the first meeting of Iranian diplomats with the West since Rouhani’s election. That framework was the basis for the draft text that was worked out between US and Iranian diplomats in Geneva over two days in November, only to be undone by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ sabotaging.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the negotiations will be called the “Rouhani Round”, for the moderate President’s acumen and expert handling of the world leaders.

Rouhani has a well-documented record of brilliant diplomacy aimed at reaching an accommodation between Iran’s core interests and those of the West

Rouhani has a uniquely well-documented record of brilliant diplomacy aimed at reaching an accommodation between Iran’s core interests and those of the West. He was the primary Iranian policymaker on the issue of nuclear weapons during the crucial period from 2003 to mid-2005. His record makes it clear that he has long been determined to make a deal with the United States to end the long-running conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Rouhani has long been the main strategist of the Iranian political faction that is committed to opening to the West and to keeping Iran a non-nuclear weapons state. But Rouhani is also the one figure associated with the faction that has the trust of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani came up with a series of policy initiatives that offered a real possibility of actually resolving the issue between 2003 and 2005, when he was given complete control over Iran’s nuclear policy in a very difficult and domestically divisive situation. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013