Written by Ramy Srour
On Tuesday this week, Germany and the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the U.S.) headed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Lady Ashton, will meet with Iranian leaders in Geneva to finally discuss Teheran’s controversial nuclear program. Since Hassan Rouhani’s election as president of the Islamic Republic last June, western powers have awaited with great optimism the resumption of nuclear talks under the new Iranian administration. Or at least some have.
So far, the numerous Iranian efforts to restart a negotiation process have been hindered by hardliners in both Israel and the U.S. (and Iran itself), who have attempted to slow down the path to reconciliation.
Wolf or sheep?
Nevertheless, Rouhani’s impressive public diplomacy over the past few months has raised the hopes of many in the west.
Opening a twitter account—one of his recent tweets read “nuclear weapons have not and will never have place in our national security doctrine, also… on religious and moral grounds”; appointing Zarif, an extremely skilled diplomat and long-time compromiser, as his foreign minister and as head of the nuclear delegation; and finally, speaking over the phone with U.S. President Barack Obama last month after a 30-years-old radio-silence between Teheran and Washington at the presidential level, are all undeniably important and meaningful public diplomacy efforts.
[Photo credit: globalpost.com]
Of course, the real question is whether they were carried out in good faith. Or, to use Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s expression, the question is whether behind the sheep’s clothing there’s a real sheep or a well-camouflaged wolf.
Israeli and U.S. concerns regarding the real intentions behind Iran’s public diplomacy ought to be heeded. But, at the same time, they should not stand in the way of a nuclear solution with Teheran.
A perfect combination
The change of leadership in Teheran offers perhaps a unique opportunity to finally unlock the decade-long standoff that has further isolated the Islamic Republic and increasingly unnerved the west. Urging Iran to offer real and tangible concessions, although necessary, should be the means to the end, and not the end in itself.
It is important to emphasize that the Rouhani Administration is made up of the same team that managed to reach the two most meaningful nuclear compromises with the Europeans back in ‘03 and ‘04. This is also the team that attempted reconciliation with the Bush Administration at around the same time. The “axis of evil” rhetoric, however, was still too rampant in the White House for allowing any sort of reconciliation.
In 2006, just two years later, the Bush Administration tried to get the process started again, primarily because of increasing pressures from the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK).
The White House invited top Iranian official Ali Laijani—who had just replaced Rouhani as head of the Supreme National Security Council—to talks in New York. This time, however, it was Teheran’s turn to stall, mainly due to the strong conservative influence of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
These precedents point to the unmistakable fact that the current leaderships in Teheran and Washington are probably the best combination that we are going to get for a long time. The unpredictability of U.S. politics has taught us that the person who will sit in the Oval Office in January 2017 may have a very different foreign policy agenda.
Timing is crucial
More importantly, the two sides seem to have much less time than that. After his election, the Iranian president gave himself (and the west) a February 2014 deadline to achieve a meaningful compromise.
[Photo credit: © Paresh]
U.S. and EU sanctions over the past years have considerably weakened the Iranian economy; Teheran’s oil revenues have seen a sharp decline and have not been replaced by any other export; Iran’s banking sector has been literally cut off from the international banking system; and inflation is stuck at almost 40 percent.
Domestic pressure on Mr. Rouhani is high, and were he to fail to come to an agreement with the P5+1 before February, he may be forced to turn into a much less compromising party.
At the same time, the Obama Administration needs a compromise before the campaign for the mid-term elections kicks off in February. Taking the Iranian quagmire off the campaign list will be one of the top priorities for the Democratic party, currently embroiled in other important domestic issues.
As the Geneva talks head to their start this week, leaders from both sides should remember that timing is crucial. Letting hardliners carry the day could have serious long-term consequences for the Teheran-Washington relationship, and more generally, for stability in the Middle East.
At a recent press briefing, Dr. Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy group advancing Iranian-American interests, explicitly warned against the dangers posed by “spoilers, such as Israel and the hardliners in Iran.” One way would be to ensure “spoilers” understood the urgency of the matter: heeding their concerns is imperative, but letting them hinder a compromise would be unwise.