The election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s new president has not surprisingly produced a flurry of analysis on what might be expected as far as the nuclear crisis is concerned, and whether the long and drawn-out negotiations with the international community could finally end in agreement. So far there is no evidence to suggest that there has been any change in Iran’s basic interests, nor in its ongoing desire to achieve a military nuclear capability. Nevertheless, much commentary is currently focused on the prospect of a new opportunity for diplomatic progress. Is it warranted?
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The hope in the West has long been that if enough pressure is brought to bear, Iran might change its cost-benefit analysis vis-a-vis the nuclear issue and be willing to come to a deal. Rohani’s very election indicates that the pressure of biting sanctions has had an effect – at least in the sense that it forced the Supreme Leader to include a presidential candidate who has directed attention to the need to improve the economic situation. And there is little doubt that Rohani will be focused on sanctions relief at the next round of nuclear negotiations, although the current negotiator Saeed Jalili had the same aim at the last two rounds in 2012 and 2013, to no avail.
But the real question is whether the pressure on Iran has been strong enough to bring it to the point of readiness to conclude a deal that would in effect squander its military nuclear ambitions. In answering this question, a crucial variable is Iran’s progress in the nuclear realm. According to a recent article in the Economist, Iran is already unstoppable, and will become a nuclear state sooner or later. Whether that is the case, or whether there is still a little time to stop Iran, clearly the ability of economic (and other forms of) pressure to force Iran’s hand in the negotiations is inversely related to its progress in the nuclear realm. The closer Iran gets to its goal, the more pressure will be needed to convince it to relinquish that goal. Iran is very close, and there is as of yet no indication that it is poised to negotiate a deal that will reverse that trend.
If Iran is still determined to achieve a military capability, and is so close to its goal, what, if anything, has changed with Rohani’s election? The answer lies in the realm of hopes and expectations. Rohani’s more moderate tone has raised new hopes and expectations for a deal, and it is these hopes that are sparking a realignment of positions that will later feed into the negotiations dynamic.
Let’s start with Iran. Judging by what Rohani has said so far, there are no grounds for concluding that a new opportunity has opened up on the nuclear front. He has clearly stated that Iran will not consider suspending uranium enrichment. In what might be construed as a more positive message, he has said that if the U.S. demonstrates “goodwill," a process of confidence-building can begin, but this is actually a very familiar Iranian position from the past eight years with Ahmadinejad as president – the prospect of Iranian progress is always preconditioned on an altered U.S. (or P5+1) stance. (The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany, the group of states that has been negotiating with Iran since 2009). Rohani has also focused new attention on the U.S., rather than the P5+1 negotiating framework. While there is much to be said for moving the negotiation to the bilateral sphere, one obvious and significant drawback would be in opening the way for drawn-out negotiations on all aspects of these two states’ relations. While this could have positive ramifications in the very long-term, it would be considerably less conducive to the goal of stopping Iran in the nuclear realm per se, because of the urgent and pressing time factor. As such, even if Rohani follows through on opening up to the U.S., this does not signify an opportunity in the nuclear realm.
Rohani seems focused most of all on securing sanctions relief, and he knows that the approach of the previous Iranian negotiators in this regard failed. But he too is not advocating a different approach to the nuclear issue as such, and therefore, what can be expected is for Rohani to try to capitalize on the expectation of a deal, hoping this will be enough to get the other side to agree to ease sanctions. He will be focused on resuscitating the hope that the international community harbors that a deal is possible, but without the change in approach that would enable the sides to move closer to an actual deal. Maintaining this strategy in the short- to medium-term will necessitate taking some steps to underscore and reinforce his image of moderation – this can be done regarding internal and perhaps regional affairs, but not in areas that impinge on the nuclear program.
Turning to the international community, any step Iran takes in the direction of a more moderate approach will be embraced by the P5+1 because the international community is desperate for any indication that there is still hope for a nuclear deal, regardless of whether there are grounds for believing that a deal is any more realistic now than it was before Rohani’s election. In this vein, Joschka Fischer, for example, writes about the “glimmer of hope” from Iran although in the same article he admits that the interests of the two sides on the nuclear question remain “diametrically opposed," and when he sets out the parameters for nuclear negotiations, he offers no direction for overcoming the inherent constraints. Similarly, when Rohani or Khamenei say that everything would be quite simple to resolve if only the U.S. was “serious,” commentators latch onto this as indication of new hope, forgetting that this position has been voiced so many times before.
Most analysts that envision a deal with Iran present some variation of Iran being allowed to conduct civilian nuclear activities, while being barred from activities that are geared to developing nuclear weapons. Hossein Mousavian, a spokesman of the Iranian nuclear negotiation team when Rohani was chief negotiator, has explained that the West should accept Iran’s right to enrich and Iran would accept IAEA guarantees. If this deal sounds familiar it is because it is: this is the basic deal of the NPT itself, which Iran agreed to decades ago when it joined the treaty. Indeed, the ten-year crisis with Iran began when it became apparent that Iran had cheated on its commitment. Therefore the “new” idea for a solution is merely restating what is already in place, the problem being that Iran broke the rules.
Iran wants a military capability – and is very close to achieving one – and as such it cannot be trusted not to continue to work on one clandestinely. If this sounds like we are back at square one that would be an accurate conclusion. It also sounds like nothing much has changed on the nuclear front.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).