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 greatcharlie.com 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 greatcharlie.com 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).