Despite Election Outcome, Obstacles To An Iranian Nuclear Deal Persist

The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next president has rightfully elicited the first real optimism in years about the possibility of diplomatic progress in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As I’ve written repeatedly now, I believe that the campaign and its outcome have bestowed upon Rouhani some measure of mandate, both from the political establishment and from a population that desperately wants a reprieve from sanctions, to advance constructive solutions on Iran’s nuclear program at the negotiating table.

However, as Rouhani’s opening press conference made clear, Iran has no intention of simply capitulating to international demands for a suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. And Rouhani’s previous tenure as the nuclear negotiator – combined with the continuing influence of the hard-liners who now control the security bureaucracy – suggests that it is far too soon to declare victory on one of the world’s most urgent (and yet oddly enduring) crises. While no one should downplay the significance of the election and the apparent emergence of a new consensus around moderation rather than resistance within Iran’s leadership, it’s also important to hedge against any irrational exuberance either in Washington or within Iran.

As I explained yesterday, the profound misgivings within the Washington establishment on the rise of yet another Iranian moderate are understandable but misplaced. Rouhani is “a real politician” as described by one of his former staffers, and he is someone who has demonstrated over the course of several decades that he knows how to work within Iran’s pernicious factional battleground. However, none of the Europeans who sat across the table from him when led the nuclear negotiations in 2003-2005 found him to be a pushover, and the substantive differences between the two sides on the nuclear that have thus far stymied any breakthroughs will not disappear simply because a more amenable negotiating team is expected to be put in place.

Iran’s position as articulated by Rouhani at his opening press conference earlier this week, and as described by several figures close to the regime in articles since Rouhani’s election, highlights that significant areas of disagreement remain between the two sides. Those probably do not include enrichment, although it is the focus of the United Nations Security Council resolutions at the center of this issue; most analysts believe that Washington could accept the continuation of low-level enrichment in Iran, so long as its scope was capped and an inspection regime to ensure absolute transparency was implemented. And Rouhani’s comments about transparency in his presser signal that Tehran is capable of swallowing at least some addition oversight and constraints.

The prospective areas of difficulty include the grandiose assertion that is part of every Iranian statement on the nuclear issue – the acknowledgement by the West of Iran’s “legitimate rights” under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to the full fuel cycle. U.S. officials routinely bristle at this notion, and the differing postures have sparked a cottage industry of punditry and legal analysis on the interpretation of the admittedly ambiguous language of Article IV of the NPT. This is probably an area where diplomatic sophistry can provide a mutually acceptable formulation that provides Tehran with face-saving rhetoric and the international community with further ammunition against future efforts to use the NPT as a vehicle for the justification of dubious nuclear activities.

In addition to continuing differences over the technical and legal aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, it is important to appreciate the larger gulf between the two sides that remains unchanged by the apparent shifts within Iran on the approach to the nuclear negotiations. As the two sides have struggled to define parameters for action on the nuclear issue, Tehran has always viewed the negotiations on the basis of a mutual – and equivalent – exchange. As described in a Financial Times oped earlier this week by a source close to the Iranian establishment, Iran’s leadership believes “that successful diplomacy, like business, is dependent on ‘equal value exchange.’ As such, any compromise should be on the basis that concessions by Iran are matched by concessions by the west.” Similarly, the author argues that “the exchange should occur at the same time… Any Iranian action should be met by simultaneous western action.” (Side note: the oped was penned by a reformist cleric who happens to be the brother of the hard-line former head of the Revolutionary Guard— one of those ‘only in Iran’ sort of dichotomies that is commonplace among the Iranian elite.)

However, for U.S. policymakers, there is no equivalence between the Iranian position and that of the international community sitting across the table in the guise of the P5+1, or permanent five UNSC members plus Germany. For Washington, its European partners, and probably Russia as well, Iran is the transgressor, having concealed nuclear activities for 18 years and having failed for more than a decade since their revelation to fully adhere to its NPT safeguards obligations or satisfy Security Council demands. By this logic, Iran must take the first move, and it must be tangible, durable and ideally irreversible. This Western sense of moral and strategic righteousness, as well as the conviction that Tehran cannot be trusted, underpins the reluctance to proffer much of value to Tehran in terms of sanctions relief until and unless Iran has implemented meaningful concessions on its nuclear activities.

This is the fundamental obstacle to real progress today on Iran’s nuclear program: the disconnect Tehran’s view of the negotiating process as a vehicle for horse-trading (or carpet dealing, to invoke a tired Orientalist cliché) and the Western perception of talks as a mechanism for Iran’s rehabilitation from the purgatory of its past and present misdeeds. The efficacy of the sanctions regime has only exacerbated this dichotomy, and correspondingly elevated the price that Iran will demand for even the smallest of nuclear concessions. The difference can be overcome, but only through patience and creativity, and a willingness of both sides to appreciate the legitimacy of the other’s perception. Just as Rouhani and his rivals in the presidential race articulated a need to shift Iran’s approach to the nuclear talks from one of resistance to cooperation and trust-building, Washington must also take this opportunity to reconsider its proposals, including the most effective means of structuring and sequencing steps by each side.

All this is not to throw cold water on the tentative sense of optimism that has seeped into the Iran debate over the course of the past week. It is long overdue and greatly welcome. But as Mohammad Khatami, the man originally elected to Iran’s presidency with a mandate for change, cautioned earlier this week, “(w)e have to be careful not to be hasty so that misplaced expectations are not placed on the administration. The administration cannot perform miracles.” And even after Rouhani’s election, it may still take a miracle to generate a real breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear issue.