Officials Highlight the Positive after Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program, But Reality Will Eventually Strike

According to an October 17, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Officials Highlight the Positive After Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” negotiators from Iran and the EU, in a rare joint statement, explained that talks on Iran’s nuclear program were “substantive” and “forward looking.”  They indicated that the representatives of the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council: US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran were planning to meet again in Geneva on November 7th and 8th.  While optimism was expressed following the meeting, the New York Times  article explained a number of thorny issues still needed to be resolved and would require considerable work from all sides.

Initially, the Russians were not very positive about the October talks in Geneva.  Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister who participated in the talks was more skeptical.  He told the Russian news agency Interfax that the two sides were still “kilometers apart” and that the talks here had been “difficult, at times tense, at times unpredictable.”  Yet, the reality is that Russia has been very supportive of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and quite willing to lend its support to finding a solution.  In previous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia was also supportive.  After Iran dropped a suspension agreement by enriching uranium and its negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany broke down in 2005, Russia proposed that Iran share ownership of a uranium enrichment plant in Russia and relocate its enrichment activities there.  When Western negotiators proposed that Iran agree to stockpile its enriched uranium abroad as a confidence building measure, Russia had offered in 2009 to provide a storage site on its territory.  However, unlike the past, in current negotiations, Russia is directly supporting the positions and demands of its ally, Iran; very likely to the detriment of both countries.

Russia’s support of Iran, particularly on the nuclear negotiations, is understandable given its considerable stake in its “positive” outcome.  The Russians hope an internationally accepted agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would obviate the need for the US missile defense in Europe.  With the threat of an Iranian attack eliminated by the agreement, the defense system would be dismantled.  Russia hopes to benefit from the rather substantial contracts it would receive from Iran for the maintenance and construction of an internationally approved nuclear program.  The lifting of economic sanctions on Iran would enable Tehran to pay the Russians for work on its nuclear program.  The negotiations provide Russia with one more opportunity to demonstrate to the world what stalwart ally it can be, even against the US.

However, US Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected the idea of altering the US policy on missile defenses in Europe due to any perceived thaw in the long US-Iranian enmity.  Further, although Russia has called for the removal of all economic sanctions on Iran, the US has made it clear, at least publicly, that major economic sanctions will not be lifted until all of the US demands have been met.

Russian support of Iran’s positions may be creating false hope in Tehran that they are attainable, leading Iranian negotiators to stubbornly insist on their demands, which in the end may cause the talks to fail.  By all accounts, Iranian negotiators came to the Geneva negotiations eerily confident in their positions.  They have rejected previous proposals to relocate uranium.  Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi explained on Iranian State Television, “We will negotiate regarding form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of [enriched] materials out of the country is our red line.”  In turn, the Iranians stated, just as the Russians, the West should relax economic sanctions on Tehran as a goodwill gesture.  Iran’s chief negotiator, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is already under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and hardline political leaders and clerics to secure an agreement that recognizes Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium.

Zarif has done his best, attempting to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions through very elegant, well-considered power-point presentations, research documents, and proposals, in what nevertheless amounts to a “Das Best oder nichts” (The best or nothing) approach to the talks.  Zarif must deliver success on Tehran’s terms.  In the Iranian media, Zarif has gone as far as to claim, “There are indicators that [US Secretary of State] John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” Yet, that perspective represents a suspension of reality.

White House officials and US political pundits have spoken and written considerably about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled that the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin ostensibly observed big concessions being volunteered in US proposals in order to entreat a dramatic nuclear arms reduction agreement between the US and Russia.  Putin ignored the proposal due to significant danger such huge cuts in Russia’s nuclear arsenal would pose to its national security.  That in part led to Obama dropping his summit meeting with Putin in August.  Most likely from Putin’s perspective, it was Obama’s uncertainty over how taking military action in Syria might affect his legacy that caused him to waver.  Putin welcomed the chance to intervene as a peacemaker.  Russia proposed, and brokered with the US, a solution to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.  Obama’s concept that US policy is “what makes America different, It’s what makes us exceptional,” presented during his televised speech on Syria on September 10, 2013, was attacked by Putin in his now infamous September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, explaining that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin.  As Andrei Piontovsky, who is executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow, was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  Piontovsky also told the New York Times that “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”

In his New York Times Op-Ed, Putin also explained “The world reacts [to US military intervention] by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security.  Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.”  However, providing a rationale for nuclear proliferation publicly is counterintuitive and rather extreme.  Putin’s perceptions of Obama’s motives have very likely found their way into Russia’s interactions with Iran such as the meeting between a delegation of senior Russian military officials and Iranian military leaders on October 20, 2013, and have had an impact.  If a misplaced, underlying effort exists to foil Obama’s alleged legacy quest, it certainly will not lead to any positive results for Russia or Iran.  Rather, such behavior in the end may make the maintenance of global peace and security far more difficult.

When dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time; they concern the country. In the US, the people’s representatives are also invested in what the country does abroad.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s demands were met, it is somewhat unlikely an agreement with substantial concessions, particularly those sought by Iran, would ever be approved by Congress.  The Congress is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions.  US diplomats appeared before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.

Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama from serving a third term.  If Obama decides to accept the terms and secure the removal of sanctions, his predecessor may not choose to do the same.  She might find his agreement unacceptable.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the cessation of nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  As the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, she might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include the cessation of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Stating the US and Iran are negotiating as equals is a truly humanistic view of their dialogue.   As Putin expressed in his New York Times Op-Ed, “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.”  However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals.  Despite US economic woes and political divisions, which are indeed real but more often hyped in the news media, the US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily.  Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear program, a potential mission for US armed forces, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new defense systems and military tactics.  Iran would not be able to deter a US military response by having a few rudimentary nuclear devices in its arsenal.  Threatening to attack US interests internationally or domestically using conventional forces or clandestine operatives would serve as an even lesser deterrent.

While the US, itself, is not existentially threatened by Iran, the US seeks to negotiate a settlement to protect its overseas interests and interests of its allies. The Russians should be astute enough to know that if the US is driven into a bad settlement on Iran’s nuclear program, inevitably Russia’s interests would not be served through the negotiations, and US military might very well take action against Iran.  Over the past decade, more surprising actions have been taken by the US on the Middle East and on anti-ballistic missile defense.  If Russia truly wants to be helpful to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, it must take a more pragmatic diplomatic approach to create a sustainable agreement for its ally Iran.  Russia must supplant what amounts to an unseemly underlying “vendetta” against Obama, driven by Putin’s impressions of him, with an effort to convince Iran that its current approach to the nuclear negotiations is fraught with danger.

Despite the dazzle of Zarif’s presentations, current Iranian proposals will unlikely satisfy the US government that its demands that Iran ensure its nuclear program will not become militarized.  An agreement with considerable US concessions, if reached with the Obama administration, will not be sustainable.  Negotiating a road map that would, at the end of the day, provide certainty that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful and place Iran’s program under the full control of international nuclear monitors, is the desired and required outcome. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, worked well together to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue and brought the strength of their relationship to bear on efforts to rekindle an international peace conference on Syria, calling the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition together in Geneva to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  Perhaps before the next meetings on the Iranian nuclear issue, they could meet again to consider how to inject realism into Iran’s approach to the talks.

Kerry Appears to Reject Iran’s Call for New Nuclear Proposal, But Iran’s Leaders Were Unlikely Frazzled by That

In an October 7, 2013 Washington Post article entitled “Kerry Appears to Reject Iran’s Call for New Nuclear Proposal,” Anne Gearan reported US Secretary of State John Kerry feels that warming relations between the US and Iran do not mean that the US will back off its demands about Iran’s nuclear program or roll back missile defenses in Europe aimed at intercepting an Iranian attack.  Back in September, Gearan notes, Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN General Assembly in New York and US President Barack Obama telephoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the end of the event.  Kerry reportedly stated on October 7th that “We’re waiting for the fullness of the Iranian difference in their approach now.”  He further explained, “But we’re encouraged by the statements that were made in New York, and we’re encouraged by the outreach.”  However, included in the article was a quote from Zarif, also Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, extracted from Iran’s state media.  Zarif stated the US should bring new proposals to a multi-party nuclear bargaining session in Geneva next week.  According to Gearan, Kerry appeared to reject that idea.  He explained Iran still has not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia and others, in February.

Such increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and any effort to shift nuclear away bilateral engagement with the US talks to a broader negotiation with the Europeans and Russia may create the impression that an effort to stall the negotiations could be underway.  That would come as a huge disappointment in Washington given expectations created by the eloquent case Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his election as president.  Zarif is astute enough to know that Kerry will shut the talks down if he discerns an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through negotiations.  It might be expected this would be viewed as disastrous in Iran, but the reality is that achieving nothing through the nuclear talks might be acceptable within Iran’s power elite.  Indeed, in Iran, the talks are not nuclear talks as much as talks on the economic sanctions.  If there is not an outcome on economic sanctions acceptable in Tehran, then an agreement may not be reached.  The US would need to prepare to act with either further coercive diplomacy or military action, or simply wait for Tehran’s next step, which may be the acquisition of the capability to build a nuclear device.

Does Tehran Want an Agreement on Its Nuclear Program?

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been supportive of Rouhani and has given him the authority to act in negotiations with the US.  However, the goal of the negotiations from Iran’s view is not as much to find compromise on its nuclear program as it is to gain some compromise from the US on economic sanctions.  The nuclear program is seen by Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and senior clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity has made Iran much poorer.  Although for years, Khamenei and the Iranian leadership have rejected the idea of Iran wanting a nuclear weapon, US policy makers suspect that Iranian leaders actually believe nuclear weapons will make Iran stronger. This situation has placed both Rouhani and Iran’s negotiator, Zarif, in a difficult position.  They must try to end economic sanctions, but manage to hold on to Iran’s nuclear program, with all of its potential, knowing the US will not agree to those demands.. 

In Iran, there have been shrill responses by key players over the talks with the US and strong condemnations of the Obama administration threats over Iran’s nuclear program.  During a speech before Friday prayer in Tehran, the adviser to IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Jafari and Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, (and former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) discussed events in New York during the UN General Assembly.  As translated from the Iranian Students News Agency by Will Fulton and Amir Toumaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Harandi reportedly stated “Our president went to the UN to solve problems with all options open from the Supreme Leader and a framework of red lines. The American Secretary of State, in opposition to the commitments and statements he made, did not recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, said that none of the officials had agreed on Iran’s right to enrichment, and said that no changes had taken shape in this area when he spoke to news agencies and the media.”  His statement raised the ire of prayer attendees who began to shout “Death to America.” 

According to Fars News, Harandi also proffered the view in his address that the negotiations would unlikely succeed; therefore, there was no real possibility that economic sanctions would be lifted anytime soon.  What Harandi knew, but presumably did not reveal to prayer attendees was that beyond the demand that Iran not enrich uranium, US demands went much farther to require Iran to remove enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.  Meeting those demands would be tantamount to surrender and represent a humiliating defeat from the perspective of Iran’s leadership.  Harandi expressed this view by stating: “These days our people have hoped for the opening of a path under the title of ‘heroic flexibility’ that leads to the realization of their demands, but I am confident that in every respect the conduct of America will continue in this malicious direction of the past and failing to evaluate national rights, and certainly their slogans will echo more loudly.”  

As explained in the September 26, 2013 post entitled, “Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts”, “heroic flexibility,” particularly as understood by Harandi and his close compatriots in the IRGC allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  Indeed, the joint diplomatic campaign of the president’s office and the Foreign Ministry may actually be just one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, other elements of power in Iran, away from Rouhani’s purview, would continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. For Iranian leaders, turning back now, after getting so close, would be counterproductive and counterintuitive.

The notion that Iran’s goals regarding economic sanctions would unlikely be met was also heard from Mashhad Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda.  As translated from the Iranian Students News Agency by Will Fulton and Amir Tourmaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Alamolhoda explained, “The country’s officials at the management rank must use foreign policy capacities to resolve economic issues and no one must create obstacles against the administrative measures.”  However, Alamolhoda went on to state, “The reality is that the country is stricken with the enemy’s nefarious sanction and issue, but paying attention to these realities must not cause the neglect of revolutionary ideals and strategies.”  Going further regarding his mistrust of the US, Alamolhoda explained that “America’s intention will never change and that view is corroborated by the American president’s act of prohibiting nuclear weapons and calling the use of nuclear energy the Iranian nation’s right. According to [US National Security Adviser, Ambassador Susan] Rice’s statement, Obama acted knowingly in speaking, because he has given the right to use nuclear energy to Iran and not its enrichment.” 

Most important in Alamolhoda’s speech, was his statement that “In the span of two days, America’s strategy changed against Iran, therefore [settling with] a government that destroyed and annihilated an Iranian aircraft on the Persian Gulf has no meaning.”  His rejection of forthright negotiations with the US gives one a sense of the rationale behind a possible dual-track effort regarding its nuclear program.  The echo of mistrust of the US could also be heard from Expediency Discernment Council and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami when discussing US-Iran relations and Obama’s comments on military options against Iran.  As translated from Fars News by Will Fulton and Amir Tourmaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Khatami stated: “From the beginning, America had problems with us, and if the nuclear story ends they will introduce human rights [as a new issue].  Therefore, America’s issue is the issue of dominance.”  He asserted, “Americans lie when they say they do not seek the overthrow of Iran’s government, rather they wanted to do so but could not. Therefore, relying on the smiles of Westerners and of this nation’s enemies is an error.”  He explained “There are rumors that some have said to abandon the death to America slogan, but they must know that the death to America slogan is the slogan of Iran’s resistance.”  Khatami went on to state, “The most idiotic type of speaking with a nation is threatening a nation. With complete obscenity, Obama says that ‘we will put all options on the table’ and we also tell them we have all options on the table, which one of those choices is Eight Years of Sacred Defense.”  Khatami pointed to the fact that “Morsi called Shimon Perez a brother, consulted with Obama, and did something for America. Therefore, those who seek to back down should look closer at Morsi’s fate. Of course, we do not accept the current government that has come to power in Egypt and consider it corrupt.” Lastly, Khatami stated, “Today, the enemy is not trustworthy at all because we are facing an enemy that is not bound to any principles. Of course, we do not say that we should not have diplomatic negotiations.”


Leaders in Tehran state that Iran has not sought to threaten the US or its interests.  Yet, they fully sense both pressure and a real threat from the US in the form of: draconian economic sanctions as part of a US policy of coercive diplomacy against Iran; the US desire to reign in Iran’s nuclear energy program and refusal to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium; the US condemnation of Iran for allegedly sponsoring terrorism worldwide; and, a powerful US naval and military presence in and around the Persian Gulf.  The previous US administration’s declaration of that Iran was a member of the “Axis of Evil”, its repetitive threats of regime change, and it threat to impose a US form of democracy on Iran, still rings in the ears of Iranian leaders.  They will not tolerate any further expressions of US views on what is best for the Iranian people.  Thoughts that Obama may lack the will to use force after his somewhat awkward effort to use force in Syria, are offset by deeply engrained feelings that Iran could be attacked.  The Iranians are not yet able to rely on promises from the US.  To that extent, Iranian leaders feel they must do whatever is necessary to ensure their nation’s security and interests.  

The long awaited diplomatic opening has occurred through the meeting between Kerry and Zarif in New York, and the phone conversation between Obama and Rouhani.  However, Kerry explains that it is too early to say whether the thaw begun at the UN in September will lead to a change in US policy.  For the US, time is certainly of the essence, as Iran’s nuclear capabilities are ever increasing.  Small diplomatic steps must continue.  Yet, Iran wants both countries step to each other at the same time.  That may have much to do with Zarif’s call for a US proposal.  It was noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski that enduring nuclear accords with the Soviet Union involved compromise, not demands for one-sided capitulation.  It may very well be that the nuclear issue will not be resolved with this new dialogue.  An agreement with Iran that halts its nuclear program may not be part of Obama’s legacy.  Legacy seems to be a very important consideration within the White House and among US pundits.  If the US were to refrain from military action against Iran even after any further nuclear developments by Iran were revealed, the US and Iran might still be able to slowly resolve issues though contact and communication.  Through cooperation with other countries, the US and Iran could possibly engage in efforts to establish greater security and stability in the Middle East.

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The Adviser to Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander-in-Chief Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari and Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi (center)

US and Iran Agree to Speed Talks to Defuse Nuclear Issue, But Trust Will Determine Its Pace

In a September 27, 2013 New York Times article entitled, “US and Iran Agree to Speed Talks to Defuse Nuclear Issue,” it was reported that the long-fractured relationship between the US and Iran took a turn on September 26th when US President Barack Obama reached Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone for a fifteen minute conversation.  The call came to Rouhani while enroute to the airport from New York City following a whirlwind of diplomatic meetings and news media events at the UN General Assembly.  The conversation, explained the article, was the first between the US and Iranian leaders since 1979 when the Islamic Revolution in Iran toppled the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and led to the seizure of the US Embassy and a 444-day hostage crisis.  The two countries have been at odds ever since.

According to the article, a senior Obama administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity due to diplomatic sensitivities, revealed the White House had expressed to the Iranians that Obama was interested in meeting Rouhani during the initial week of activities of the General Assembly but was surprised the Iranians had suggested the phone call.  According to that same anonymous official, Obama placed the call from the Oval Office around 2:30PM, joined by aides and a translator.  The article quoted Obama as saying during a press conference that same afternoon, “Resolving this issue obviously could also serve as a major step toward a new relationship between the United States and Iran, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”  The New York Times reported a Twitter account in Rouhani’s name stated later that day, “In regards to nuclear issue, with political will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter.”   Rouhani’s Twitter account was also reported as tweeting that Rouhani had told Obama, “We’re hopeful about what we will see from the US and other major powers “in coming months.”

Obama’s phone conversation with Rouhani, and the thirty minute meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the day before, were truly historic moments, and  have been sources of much reveling within the Obama administration.  If a US-Iranian accommodation over the nuclear dispute could be reached now, it might also serve to prevent a regional explosion in the Middle East.  However, the president should only be cautiously optimistic about future relations with Iran. Any radical shift in the bilateral relations should not be expected anytime soon.  Luckily for both sides, the key players in this very fluid scene, Obama and Rouhani, and Kerry and Zarif genuinely want to reach an agreement.  The biggest hurdle in the process will be establishing trust after years of uncongenial relations.  The greatest constraint will be time as the Iranians move closer to their nuclear goals.

Those Best Able to Reach an Agreement Are in Place

While the door has been opened for the potential of a new chapter between the two nations, a key to its success will be the individuals involved in the negotiations.   The first impressions between Obama and Rouhani and Kerry and Zarif were very positive.  As it was discussed in at August 3, 2013 post entitled “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in the West But Talks With Iran Will Likely Be Influenced By the Syrian War,” Obama’s involvement in the process could only have a positive impact.  Obama’s aides prepared for the General Assembly by laying the groundwork, making overtures to Iran according to a September 28, 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal.  White House officials began privately signaling a potential presidential level meeting at least two weeks ago.  The White House offered a carefully framed message that the US sought to engage Iran with “mutual respect,” signaling it was taking Rouhani seriously.  Before he was sworn in a president, Rouhani indicated a willingness to have direct talks with the US.  Upon taking power Rouhani and his aides engaged in what the New York Times referred to as an extraordinarily energetic campaign to prove that they are moderate and reasonable partners and to draw a stark contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Before leaving New York, Rouhani was quoted by the New York Times as stating at a press conference, “I expect this trip will be the first step and the beginning of constructive relations with countries of the world.”  He also explained his government would present a plan in three weeks on how to resolve the nuclear standoff.

As for Kerry and Zarif, both are well equipped for the task ahead.  They both know that diplomacy works and they are great at it.  As discussed in an August 3, 2013 post entitled, “Iranian President Is Sworn In and Presents a New Cabinet of Familiar Faces, Including Javad Zarif,” Kerry is a discreet person and has proved himself as a very capable Secretary of State.  He has a genuine interest in improving relations with Iran.  Zarif is someone with whom Kerry would be able to have a dialogue and with which Kerry would be able to form a good relationship. That will require continued contact and communication.  There might be efforts both in Washington and Tehran to put barriers to further dialogue.  For example, the proposal by the US House of Representatives to impose further sanctions on Iran just before Rouhani took office ostensibly could have harmed the chance at dialogue.  However, it is most likely that Kerry and Zarif would be more than able to work through such incidents and other encumbrances coming from both sides.

A Matter of Trust

While much optimism was expressed after the events of the September 26th and 27th, the reality is that the US policy on Iran has not changed, nor has Iranian policy toward the US.  The two nations find themselves on opposite sides of a multitude of issues beyond Iran’s nuclear program, including Syria.  Ostensibly, the negotiators are meeting in good faith, bringing a certain degree of mutual trust for their counterpart to the table.  However, Zarif should know what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discovered negotiating with Kerry on Syria.  Kerry is a long-time political leader in the US, serving as a Member of both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.  Kerry has seen every political move, tactic, or deception, and perhaps used a few, himself, over the years.  He would be quick to discern any effort to any unusual or questionable approaches.  While it is hoped Zarif will be forthright in every contact and communication, if Kerry intuits or actually recognizes an effort to delay or stall for time, he will most likely bring the talks to a sudden stop.

If Iran has come to the table truly seeking a new relationship with the US, it needs to change.  The process will require some concessions on Iran’s part very soon.  For Iran to act as if that were not the case will raise concerns.  This is troubling because it is clear that Iran may not be as ready to make concessions.  This is particularly true with regard to its right to enrich uranium and its right to have a nuclear program.  The US would prefer to curtail Iran’s rights to both.  The US ostensibly will demand that Iran cease all enrichment of uranium and agree to the removal of all enriched uranium from its territory.  It will likely demand that Iran dismantle its Fordow nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum, and dismantle the newest generation of centrifuges near Natanz.  Further, the US will likely demand that Iran stop construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak.  However, Iran will undoubtedly refuse to surrender it rights to enrich uranium and its right to have a program wherever it chooses on its territory, and in any way it might decide to construct it.   Such demands will feed into the mutual distrust, and to a great degree in Iran, the anger that exists.  In the US, Iran’s demands will play into the idea that its diplomatic initiative was designed as a delaying tactic to allow for other elements of the government to drive the nuclear program forward until breakout capacity is reached, which means acquiring the knowledge and means to develop a nuclear weapon without actually doing so.  US allies in the region, especially Israel, which rejects the idea that Iran’s diplomatic efforts are legitimate, and have rebuffed Obama for even entertaining Iranian overtures.  Israel’s Minister of Intelligence and International Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as stating, “Some people are willing to be cheated.”  In Iran, US demands will be seen as an attempt to have Iran retreat from protecting itself and its vital interests and that promises from the US must be looked upon with skepticism.  In certain quarters of the Iranian government, US demands will harden the belief that developing a nuclear weapon is the surest way to protect Iran from US and Israeli attacks.

The Importance of Time

It still takes a long time to reach an accommodation with a country with which you have been opposed for so long.  In following, it will take years to thaw the icy divide formed between the US and Iran as a result of the events of 1979 and there was a re-chilling after Iran was included as part of the “Axis of Evil” during President George W. Bush’s administration.  Under normal circumstances, small steps will be seen from both directions, and confidence building measures will serve to enhance the health of the overall relationship.  Unfortunately, the US does not have years available to resolve the matter diplomatically.  If Iran’s nuclear program is not halted in the immediate future, within a matter of months, Iran will acquire the weaponization capability that the US has been striving so hard to block them from getting.  Very injurious sanctions are already in place against Iran.  Pressuring Zarif and his delegation at the table will not yield faster results.

In this situation, Obama once again demonstrated what good things can come from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement in foreign policy efforts.  Obama has discussed the phone call but wisely restrained in what he has said about the current situation in Iran.  As long as he is involved, he may bring fresh thinking to the process and keep things moving forward.  The same may be said of Rouhani, whose public support of Zarif’s efforts have given more weight to Iran’s negotiation efforts.  Rohani’s involvement may also help things move forward at a faster pace.

Unless one is privy to sub rosa planning meetings of the most senior government officials in the Tehran, it is difficult to say with certainty that Iran is being deceptive or legitimate.  That type of tasking must be left to the intelligence community.  However, what may be helpful in this process to discern Iranian intentions is for Kerry to query Zarif on the meaning of the concept of heroic flexibility which Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proffered in the context of Iran’s negotiations with the US on the nuclear issue.  Rouhani explained that he has been given the authority to fully act with regard to negotiations. It must be made certain by the US that other elements of the Iranian power have not also been given the authority conversely to engage in a rapid effort to reach the goals of Iran’s nuclear program.  A dual-track approach would not be unthinkable. Zarif should freely ask similar questions of US intentions during the talks.  Receiving acceptable answers to any inquiry itself will not guarantee that a verifiable agreement with appropriate transparency will not be circumvented.  However, in the context of the negotiations, it may give Kerry and US negotiators a better understanding of Iran’s thinking and actions and give them the confidence to formulate solutions that can overcome demands that amount to stumbling blocks.  Yet, as long as enough doubt exists, there is little chance an agreement will be signed between the two countries.

Inside a meeting of very senior officials in Tehran. Please see the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (at left), President Hassan Rouhani (second from left), and Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan (in military uniform at right).