By Maxime Fischer-Zernin
The UN General Assembly meetings this week offers President Obama a chance to capitalize on recent diplomatic developments with Syria and to extend a hand to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in the hopes of launching renewed negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. In an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, Rouhani urged Western leaders “to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue.” It is critical for Obama to show that his administration is willing to answer Iranian concessions with some relief from sanctions that Rouhani can bring to the Iranian people.
Iran is Ready for Talks
A prominent adviser to the Iranian leadership, Amir Mohebbian,explains that the next six months represent the best opportunity for Iran’s leaders to reach an agreement, before campaigning for parliamentary elections begins in March. This is a window the US cannot afford to miss. It is time for the US to offer a reasonable deal that would signal to the Iranian people that the West is willing to work towards a larger agreement.
The administration can stand by its message, that “the US is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allow Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” while making tit-for-tat concessions. Hard-liners in the United States and Israel, however, have dismissed the possibility of any talks on the basis that Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and called for further sanctions. But Rouhani’s past dealing with the United States suggests otherwise.
Rouhani is one of the “Iranian moderates” who, in May 1986, met secretly in Tehran with officials from President Reagan’s National Security Council staff. “He said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us. And we could deal with them,” Howard Teicher, then a senior NSC staffer who was part of the delegation that me with Rouhani, told Foreign Policy.
In fact, Iran has recently taken some of the very actions that hawks once would have considered small victories. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has slowed its accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium and on Wednesday Iran unexpectedly freed 11 prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Rouhani also seems to have the political support needed to forge a deal now that the confusion over who makes final policy decisions in Tehran has been cleared up. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed diplomacy with the West, adopting a posture he describes as “heroic leniency.” Equally important is that Khamenei has endorsed Rouhani’s position that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should stay out of diplomatic dealings with the West. Rouhani has taken this green light and appointed his widely respected foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to handle the country’s nuclear negotiations.
Recognizing the varied interest of the United States in the region, Rouhani has also distanced his government from the Assad regime in Syria, its once strong ally. In his Washington Post op-ed, Rouhani announced that his government is ready to “facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.”
On Twitter he called on the “international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria.” Furthermore, in a speech to Revolutionary Guard commanders, he claimed that Iran will support whomever the Syrian people chose as their leader, even if that person is not Assad.
These recent diplomatic developments between the US, Iran, and Syria suggest that this week’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York will be a particularly eventful one.
In responding to these Iranian gestures, Obama Administration officials will of course have to continue to engage in its behind-the-scenes efforts to reassure Israel that they will not be overly eager in easing sanctions. Israel, though, has been far from cooperative as presidents Obama and Rouhani have slowly been building trust.
“There is no need to be fooled by the words,” declared an Israeli government statement released late Thursday. Mr.Netanyahu said Thursday: “The international community must increase the pressure on Iran” until it halts uranium enrichment, removes enriched uranium from the country, dismantles the Fordo nuclear plant and stops “the plutonium track.” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs added on Friday “there is no more time to hold negotiations.”
While the US should be mindful of Israel’s reservations, it cannot let them obstruct dialogue with Iran. The Israeli stance of demanding increased sanctions while declaring that it is too late for negotiations leaves no room for a diplomatic solution and so is untenable if any agreement is to be reached. By rejecting any negotiations, Netanyahu’s government is ignoring Rouhani’s gestures and blocking any preliminary agreements with Iran that would be necessary to pave the way for a long-term deal.
“Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ,” says Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt, “is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it’s dumb.”
“Hawks at home and abroad are always harping about U.S. credibility and the need for presidents to show their strength. But refusing to talk to those with whom we differ isn’t a sign of confidence and strength; it’s actually a sign of timidity and weakness. It tells the world that we’re afraid that shaking hands, sitting down, and talking with someone who might rock the foundations of our power.”
A Handshake In New York?
During his remarks Tuesday, President Obama stressed American exceptionalism and the need for the US as a force of good in global diplomacy. On Iran, Mr. Obama was cautiously optimistic, noting the difficulty posed by three decades of estrangement.
“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight – the suspicion runs too deep,” he said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Mr. Rouhani’s speech at the UN later that day was a far cry from the inflammatory rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He tried to reassure the Assembly that nuclear weapons had no place in his country’s future, but made no specific proposal. He did, however, make a few statements, including bashing the US drone program and US-backed sanctions, meant to shore up support of some hard-liners at home in anticipation of diplomatic talks between Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and representatives from the group of 5+1—members of the Security Council plus Germany—Thursday. Shoaring up these elements may also explain his choice not to accept a “chance” encounter with President Obama in the halls of the UN.
White House national security official Ben Rhodes had said Friday that there is no meeting “currently planned” between the two presidents, but former officials predicted a “chance” encounter. As Stephen M. Walt points out in his Foreign Policy column, we shouldn’t attach too much significance to whether or not there is a handshake. “If they do meet, will they shake hands? Will it be an impromptu sidebar or a sit-down conversation? What color tie will Obama be wearing? Will they drink coffee or tea? Boxers or briefs?”
Instead, we should be focused on Thursday’s 5+1 meeting that could be a substantive exchange, rather than a theatric one. “That’s what really matters, and all the attention paid to the atmospherics of a possible meeting just gets in the way and wastes everyone’s time.”
The French Connection
Obama will likely turn to Europe for help in capitalizing on the opportunity created by this recent series of remarkable diplomatic developments in the Middle East. Iran has made a series of conciliatory moves beginning with the election of Rouhani, who during the election vigorously attacked the previous administration’s diplomatic relations with the international community. There has since been an exchange of letters between the two Presidents, a slowing of Iran’s nuclear program, and a release of political prisoners. Most recently, Germany’s Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is prepared to shut down the Fordow nuclear-enrichment plant altogether in return for a relaxation of sanctions.
With Syria, Russia and the United States brokered the deal to put Assad’s chemical arms stockpiles under international control, submitted through resolution to the United Nations Security Council by France. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Saturday that Syria had handed over information about its chemical weapons arsenal, meeting the first deadline of the disarmament operation. France has also shown interest in playing a part in talks with Iran. French President Fracois Hollande announces that he will meet with Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
President François Hollande of France also spoke Tuesday, echoing President Obama’s speech and calling on Iran to provide “concrete gestures which will show that this country renounces its military nuclear program even if it clearly has the right to pursue its civilian program.”
White House officials have again dismissed any possibility of a “formal meeting” between President Obama and President Rouhani. “We’re not prepared for heads of state to negotiate or presidents to negotiate on the nuclear issue,” an official said.
A similar sentiment was expressed by the Iranian side: “The assumption that a meeting per se could be decisive or help solve problems is absolutely wrong,” said the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham. “We think that we should wait until a proper time for such a meeting comes.”
In the meantime, all eyes will be on Secretary of State Kerry’s meeting with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as part of the 5+1 meeting Thursday. It would be the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 2007.
Kerry will have to deliver on the President’s call for a relationship “based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” “At the very least,” suggests TIME’s Fareed Zakaria, “the Obama Administration should come up with a reasonable offer that would signal to the Iranian people that if the regime is willing to credibly forswear nuclear weapons, ordinary Iranians will have a brighter future.” Part of this is understanding that before Iran is likely to make a substantial shift in its policies, it will need to see some reward for its initial steps, including relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations.
The opportunity for Rouhani is clear. He can come to a preliminary deal with the West that would diffuse tensions, relaxing sanctions, and stimulating the economy. Given these incentives, the US needs to accept that Rouhani is willing to negotiate in good faith and respond in kind. At Thursday’s meeting, Iran will have to offer concrete concessions on uranium enrichment, and the US will have to show the willingness and political ability to provide sanctions relief to Iran.
After a summer of flirting between Rouhani and Obama, it’s time for both parties to commit to this new relationship.