Last week’s New York visit by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fell short of any expectations that might have been set by his historic American debut only a year ago. While there was plenty of pageantry — prime-time interviews, gala dinners, and sober speeches before august institutions — Tehran’s annual American charm offensive fell short of the hype and historic breakthroughs that marked his September 2013 trip. Even more disappointing was the fact that the rare appearance of senior Iranian officials on American soil failed where it mattered most, in catalyzing new momentum on the stalled nuclear talks.
These dashed hopes should not overshadow what Rouhani’s New York trip did accomplish: it clarified for Americans and the world that Iran’s strategy is to play out the clock on the approaching deadline for securing a comprehensive deal and to wield its role in the intensifying regional turmoil as leverage in securing more favorable terms. This strategy, while perfectly rational from an Iranian perspective, is almost certain to produce a disastrous outcome for Iran, the region, and the world.
What a Difference a Year Makes
This September was always going to suffer by comparison to 2013, when Rouhani arrived in New York for United Nations General Assembly meetings fresh off his surprising election and brandishing a strong early mandate for diplomatic outreach on the nuclear issue and beyond. That visit was a tour de force of affirmation and celebration, with an expertly crafted crescendo of ingratiating overtures that culminated in an unprecedented telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and Rouhani during his final moments in New York.
This time, consistent with the dire regional context and his public character throughout his long career in Iran’s security bureaucracy, Rouhani bared a more censorious style and less silky rhetoric. Instead, he scolded the West for “strategic blunders” that had caused the region’s many woes, and suggested that Iran’s assistance against regional extremists could be had for the small price of flexibility on the nuclear issue.
In turn, he was received by his American interlocutors with a slightly harder edge. A record is tougher to defend than the mere promise of action, and journalists’ questions often become more pointed when one of their own has been targeted. Instead of the patronizingly giddy praise for the Iranians’ social media savvy, this year the CEO of Twitter took a highly public shot at Rouhani, encouraging him to make the technologies available to all of his citizens. (The latter move prompted a fitting counter response by Iranians, who launched a social media campaign to press Twitter to grant Iran-based users access to account verification services.)
A Deadline Looms, But a Nuclear Deal Remains Out of Reach
Still, the tougher tone on both sides would simply be the stuff of atmospherics had the talks on the nuclear issue made meaningful progress. With less than two months before the expiration of the already extended deadline for the nuclear diplomacy, the negotiations that took place on the sidelines of UNGA represented the last best chance to overcome the stalemate on the core concern that has divided the parties since the outset — how to constrain Tehran’s capacity to enrich uranium. Unfortunately, it appears to have been an opportunity lost, largely because of Iranian obduracy on the issue of enrichment. This is hardly the only outstanding issue; in reality, so long as any piece of the deal remains in play, none of the tentative arrangements brokered on particular elements — such as the Fordow enrichment facility or the Arak heavy water plant — can be considered definitive.
U.S. officials are allergic to any conversation that contemplates the failure to get a deal by November 24, arguing that any public contemplation of what might follow is a distraction that dilutes pressure on Tehran for quick compromise. Increasingly, this is a futile concern; the expectation that the deadline will pass without a deal is already creeping into the policy discourse, as a new article by former White House official Gary Samore forecasts.
And in any case, the insistence on avoiding any discussion of a potential failure is quite the opposite of American intentions. For their part, during a host of public and private meetings in New York featuring Rouhani or his talented foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranians openly acknowledged the prospect that the deadline will not be met. Timing hardly seems to be a motivating factor at this point. In a breakfast with reporters, Rouhani noted that “if there [is] no final agreement, there will perhaps be another way to go.”
The Islamic Republic and the Islamic State
In addition to the Iranians’ lack of urgency on the impending deadline, another aspect of their approach to the nuclear negotiations came through loud and clear during the New York visit — namely, the linkage that Tehran sees between the nuclear deal and regional instability.
It was inevitable that the question of Iran’s stance toward the violent group that has dubbed itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) would arise during the delegation’s New York visit. After all, Zarif arrived only a week after President Obama addressed the nation about the threat posed by ISIS and immediately following a conference led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to formalize an international coalition against ISIS. Out of deference to Washington’s regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iran was pointedly not invited to that gathering — despite the front-line role Iranian forces have already played in driving ISIS out of several Iraqi positions.
Most of the attention paid to Rouhani’s UNGA speech focused on his sanctimonious scolding of Washington and the world for the failure to pay heed to his warnings a year ago about extremism. Both Rouhani and Zarif insisted that Tehran can play a central role in combatting the rise of ISIS and other jihadist forces, and deprecated the still-evolving American strategy for its reliance on air power.
However, the most significant aspect of their remarks on ISIS was the fairly unsubtle suggestions that “avoidance of excessive demands in the negotiations by our counterparts” could open the doors to Iranian assistance. Once again, as in so many previous iterations of the U.S.-Iranian flirtation (Iran-contra, goodwill-begets-goodwill), a quid pro quo is being dangled before Washington; for the small price of nuclear concessions, Iranian assistance against ISIS can be bought. “If our interlocutors are also equally motivated and flexible, and we can overcome the problem and reach a longstanding agreement within the time remaining,” Rouhani cajoled in his UNGA speech, “then an entirely different environment will emerge for cooperation at regional and international levels, allowing for greater focus on some very important regional issues such as combating violence and extremism in the region.”
UNGA Is Over, and So Is Rouhani’s Honeymoon
The attempt at linkage and the lack of urgency evident in the public remarks of Rouhani, Zarif and other Iranian officials last week suggest that Tehran is playing hardball. However, it is a dangerous bluff. Rouhani’s government has begun to rehabilitate Iran’s economy and restore some confidence among its people that the country is no longer headed toward a precipice; the rise of ISIS has reinforced its sense of regional primacy.
However, this renewed sense of swagger should not be mistaken for actual leverage. Tehran has infinitely more to lose from the failure to secure a deal. Washington does not want to contemplate alternatives to diplomacy, and in the current chaotic environment, Obama is even less likely to move quickly toward a military solution to the nuclear impasse than ever before.
Still, sanctions remain a devastating tool, and one that is only too tempting for a recalcitrant American Congress. Despite strains on the sanctions regime as a result of Ukraine and new threats to energy supplies, international adherence remains robust, simply because existing measures force the world to choose between doing business with Tehran and doing business in the United States. That cost-benefit assessment for most international firms won’t change until the legal framework does — in other words, until there is a comprehensive deal. In the absence of one, the tightening of sanctions, and the corresponding toll on ordinary Iranians, is almost an inevitability.
As for the campaign against ISIS, it would be a grave mistake to barter nuclear concession for an Iranian assist in that battle. That’s not to disregard Tehran’s formidable capabilities and its existing influence among crucial constituencies in both Iraq and Syria. However, the logistical and institutional barriers to direct bilateral cooperation on both sides remain steep, and ultimately Iran’s interests — as identified by its leadership — will govern its campaign there, not some spurious tradeoffs in the nuclear talks.
Iranian negotiators, like their American counterparts, have domestic politics to consider, particularly the hardliners who will resent every hint of compromise from revolutionary dogma. From this corner, the president’s performance in New York mostly drew plaudits at home, with one notable exception — his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government remains a much cherished bête noire for Iranian hardliners. (Rouhani has since denounced Cameron for implying that Tehran was “part of the problem” in Iraq and Syria.)
But a deal that satisfies the maximalist imperatives of hardliners in either capital is not a viable construct. The U.S. explicitly conceded this last November, and President Obama himself made a strenuous case for the interim deal and its hard-fought compromise of continuing Iranian enrichment over howls of opposition from Congress and U.S. regional allies. He has largely won the point; the demand for zero enrichment has mostly faded from the debate.
Obama’s political courage has not yet been matched in Tehran. Iran’s leadership remains intent on retaining its core nuclear infrastructure, and there is no political force willing or capable of pushing back publicly against the hardliners’ wildly inflated definition of Iran’s interests and requirements. Ironically, for much of the eight years that preceded his election to the presidency, Rouhani was that voice of reason, constantly prodding his predecessor to avoid boxing Iran into a corner.
Today, as a president who lacks ultimate authority over nuclear policy and most other sensitive matters, Rouhani is trying to box Washington into a false choice between accepting Iran’s unacceptable terms or seeking an even less attractive alternative to diplomacy. The Obama administration and its partners in the P5+1 should resist this ruse. The world cannot want a deal more than Tehran does, and we cannot pay any price to get one. In the end, the costs of continuing the impasse are felt hardest by the Iranian people, at least those who were not present at Rouhani’s lavish closing reception at the New York luxury restaurant Cipriani last week.