Iran: Deal or No Deal?

Hassan RouhaniBy Connor Phillips.

Elected last year to govern what is arguably the world’s most well-known theocracy, this cleric brought a moderate tone and the promise of reform to a position that for years was marked by hard-line conservatism.  And now the opportunity has come for him to translate his accommodating rhetoric into reality. 

But enough about Pope Francis

When Hassan Rouhani, cleric, academic, politician, and diplomat, was elected president of Iran in 2013, the West breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Rouhani’s election campaign had focused on addressing the economic issues that were impacting many Iranians (thanks in large part to the international sanctions regime targeting Iran’s nuclear program) rather than on bashing Israel and the West in the manner of his populist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Quoted as stating that “Our nuclear centrifuges are good to spin when our people’s economy is also spinning in the right direction,” Rouhani had pledged dialogue with the outside world, raising hopes that his election might finally overcome the impasse between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program.  Now that negotiations between the world powers and Iran have come down to the wire, with only one month remaining before the deadline to reach a deal, his moment to do so has come.

The effort to resolve this dispute has taken the better part of a decade.  It all began in 2002, when an Iranian dissident group first revealed the existence of covert facilities used for uranium enrichment, a process necessary to produce fuel both for nuclear power and for nuclear weapons.  Iran agreed to suspend the program while it negotiated with Western powers, the UN Security Council, and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, over the acceptable limits of nuclear technology it could possess.  But there was one fundamental sticking-point the parties could not get past:  the US and Europe wanted Iran to stop enriching uranium completely, while Iran insisted that it had a right to do so.  (Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is still a party, it technically does, provided it is compliant with regulations that the IAEA found Iran has violated).  Negotiations bogged down, and when Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, he announced that Iran would re-start the enrichment of uranium, which has continued ever since.

When Rouhani entered office, it looked as if things might finally turn around.  Talks between the P5+1 powers (Russia, China, the US, Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran commenced almost immediately, and after several false starts, a temporary accord was struck in Geneva on November 24, 2013.  Under the terms of the deal, Iran would suspend its enrichment of uranium and begin to dismantle its program—including diluting its current stockpile of enriched uranium—in exchange for some sanctions relief.  But if a final deal is not reached by the one-year anniversary of the Geneva accords, the process could come to a standstill once again.  In that case, pressure will grow on the US—particularly from Israel, Washington’s key ally in the region and Iran’s arch-nemesis—to pursue a more drastic solution. 

Complicating matters is the same fundamental impasse that has been there from the start: Iran insists on acknowledgement of its “right” to enrich uranium in both the text and the content of the treaty.  A potential agreement could finesse this distinction by allowing Iran some limited enrichment activities while mentioning a generic right of all countries to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.  That way, Iran would have a tacit acknowledgement of its right to enrich while the international community would not have to explicitly concede it.  In practice, the deal that is taking shape would allow Iran to keep some degree of its current enrichment capacity, with heavy safeguards and IAEA inspections to ensure that it did not pursue weaponization.  This could be the solution that all sides are looking for—as long as the peaceful nature of Iran’s program can be assured, the West could conceivably agree to allow it to continue.

But delineating the program’s limits places the P5+1 in a sticky situation.  Make too many concessions to Iran, and it could retain the capacity to gradually work up to a bomb, rendering the accord meaningless.  Conversely, Rouhani might reject a deal if it is not generous enough:  like all of the Iranian political establishment, he too believes that his nation has the right to enrich uranium, and his domestic support will implode if he is seen as bargaining away Iran’s enrichment capacity.  Thus, as negotiations go down to the wire, all bets are off on what might emerge from the talks.

Even if the negotiators can reach a compromise, the problem remains of convincing their respective governments to implement it.  This difficulty is particularly acute in Rouhani’s case, given that conservatives still hold much sway in Iran’s government, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.  (Obama is already reportedly planning to bypass his own conservative opposition by implementing any accord through executive action, which does not require Senate approval).  Nevertheless, Rouhani only achieved his office in the first place because he was a member of a handpicked group of presidential candidates acceptable to Iran’s clerical regime.  He may have been the most moderate of the bunch—and his landslide victory thus demonstrates public support for pragmatism among the Iranian people—but his initial selection shows that he also possesses credibility with the Ayatollah.  This support has admittedly made him seem less trustworthy to some (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”), but it also means that he is well-placed to sell a deal to the conservatives.  If Iran and the international community can reach a historic diplomatic settlement on November 24th, then Hassan Rouhani may well be the man most directly responsible.  

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