New Iranian president Hassan Rowhani

New Iranian president Hassan Rowhani.

Will Iran’s new president defuse the confrontation with the United States over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program? Hassan Rowhani, elected with a narrow 50.7 percent of the votes in Friday’s presidential election, inherits a dangerous stalemate. Iran is stonewalling on answering UN inspectors’ questions about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program, while talks with the United States and five other world powers have broken down.

But Rowhani has the credentials to bring a new spirit to the talks. As Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, Rowhani met Western demands to suspend uranium enrichment: Iran claims its program is a strictly civilian effort to produce nuclear power and medical isotopes, but the West fears Iran could enrich uranium to the level needed to make an atomic bomb. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in August 2005, Iran switched to a hard line approach. Rowhani’s goal had been to keep Iran from being referred to the UN Security Council; Ahmadinejad did not care. He defied the West and resumed enrichment work, – and the first UN sanctions were levied against Iran in 2006.

Now Rowhani is calling for a more conciliatory approach to get the United States and its allies to lift the increasingly tough sanctions which have crippled the Iranian economy. In a press conference Monday, his first since winning the presidential ballot, he offered more openness on Iran’s nuclear program and said that Iran wants to reduce tensions with Washington, which has not had diplomatic relations with the Islamic government that seized power in 1979.

This is change of a sort, but real change may take time, perhaps years into Rowhani’s four-year term, which will begin when he takes office on August 3. Rowhani managed to suspend uranium enrichment despite the skepticism of the most powerful person in the country, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, whose power outranks that of the elected presidency. Iranian diplomats told me that Khamenei said to Rowhani at the time, Go ahead, suspend enrichment, negotiate with the West, but I assure you that nothing will come of it, and they will only try to trick you by extracting concessions without giving anything in return. Curiously enough, that was the same warning the United States was giving Britain, Germany, and France – the so-called EU-3 who negotiated with Rowhani from 2003-2005 – about their chances of getting a deal from Iran.

Defending his compromise approach, Rowhani said in a speech in Iran in 2004 that the suspension cost the Islamic Republic nothing, keeping the United States at bay while Iran worked on other parts of its nuclear program, namely making the feedstock gas used for enrichment. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work [at the uranium gas conversion plant] in Esfahan,” Rowhani said.

Tactics have changed since 2004, especially since some leaders in Iran believe suspending enrichment was a mistake because it was not matched by concessions from the West. Rowhani made clear at his press conference Monday that his government would not suspend enrichment again, mainly because Iran now has thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, while there were only a few test machines running in 2003. “We have passed that period. We are now in a different situation,” Rowhani told reporters. “All should know that the next government will not budge from defending our inalienable rights.”

Rowhani did mention a way forward, a plan he had worked out in 2005 with then French President Jacques Chirac. This plan was shot down by the EU-3, however, since it would have allowed Iran to continue enriching. US and EU policy at that time was for there to be “not one centrifuge turning” in Iran. Rowhani said what he liked in the Chirac plan was that Iran’s right to enrich would be recognized in line with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that Iran would allow the UN wider inspection rights to guarantee that the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful.

This is not far from Iran’s position in the most recent talks, which foundered in April since the two sides have sharply opposing demands. Iran wants the first step to be full relief from sanctions; the United States wants the first step to be for Iran to cease enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is closer to weapon-grade than the five percent needed for power reactors. Behind the scenes, however, it is clear that the Obama administration is hungry for a deal. The United States is also apparently ready to let Iran keep some low-grade enrichment in a final agreement, although Iran must be flexible on the timing of sanctions relief. In such a situation, where the chasm between official positions is exacerbated by harsh rhetoric – such as Ahmadinejad’s denying the Holocaust and threatening Israel – the change of tone Rowhani brings could break the ice. But this remains a big if.

Meanwhile, the United States could turn up the pressure on Iran by arming Syrian rebels well enough to hold off the resurgent security forces of Iran’s Alawi ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. This is another big if. It is still not clear how far the Obama administration, which announced last week it is now ready to give military aid, is prepared to go. But if the war in Syria does convince the Iranians they have much to fear from US military action, it would greatly strengthen the US dual-track strategy with Iran of negotiations plus pressure. That, in turn, might make it easier for Rowhani to convince the Supreme Leader that, faced with crippling sanctions and a real military threat, the time has come for Iran to strike a deal on the nuclear issue. But this is a huge if.

 

 Michael Adler studies the Iranian nuclear program and non-proliferation at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Comments

  • Jack

    It doesn’t matter what Iran does the Jews puppet America is going to keep the Middle East unstable until the last drop of oil is gone from the region. Their is no money in peace and the pigs that start the wars never fight in them. We have heard nothing but propaganda on Iran since America was kicked out of the country.

  • Mike

    Personally,I think the Iranian voters are beginning to believe that if Iran does not come around, there is a very likely going to be an attack from Israel and that will leave Iran and it’s atomic weapons program in ruins for many, many years to come…. The whole balance of power has shifted greatly since those enormous natural gas fields were found last Summer within the territorial waters of Israel….Now Russia wants to be Israels “new best friend” as Israel will soon have the capability to sell natural gas to Europe at prices far below those that Russia charges them….

    On another matter, the U.S. has a long memory and, in my opinion, has never forgotten or forgiven the Embassy take over…. Should they fire on our fleet or installations after the Israeli attack, our response would be overwhelming and perhaps it would be two centuries before Iran ever posses a threat again…..

    Imagine the world if funding for international Islamic terrorism, just “went away”, dried up in one big “puff”?…. Could happen and it all depends on how much the new Iranian President recognizes his very negative current position…..

  • Don Bacon

    Will Iran’s new president defuse the confrontation with the United States over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program? . . .the West fears Iran could enrich uranium to the level needed to make an atomic bomb.

    This “confrontation” is actually not nuclear but political. Iran has Middle East hegemony and the US wants it, and Iran won’t kowtow to US demands. The US has sanctioned Iran since Iran overthrew the US/UK-installed dictator, the Shah.

    “Iran is stonewalling on answering UN inspectors’ questions about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program”

    Not true — Iran has consistently stated that it has no military dimensions, and the IAEA has continually reported that there is no diversion of uranium.

    Rowhani met Western demands to suspend uranium enrichment. . .When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in August 2005, Iran switched to a hard line approach. Rowhani’s goal had been to keep Iran from being referred to the UN Security Council; Ahmadinejad did not care.

    Not true. The resumption of uranium enrichment was announced by Rouhani himself, while Khatami was still in office as president. The actual resumption was delayed a few days to allow the IAEA to reinstall their monitoring gear, so it coincidentally occurred a few days after Ahmadinejad took office — but it was under Khatami and Rouhani, not Ahmadinejad, when Iran restarted enrichment.

    some leaders in Iran believe suspending enrichment was a mistake because it was not matched by concessions from the West.

    Of course it was a mistake, likely one not to be repeated. The reason why the Iranians restarted enrichment was because the Eu-3 lied to Iran. Bottom line — Iran has a sovereign right to uranium enrichment as then-Senator John Kerry stated in 2009: “The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous . . . because it seemed so unreasonable to people,” said Mr Kerry, citing Iran’s rights as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. “It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will,” he added. “They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.”

    • ohmaddog3

      we just want their oil

  • Don Bacon

    Hassan Rowhani, elected with a narrow 50.7 percent of the votes in Friday’s presidential election,

    Actually, it was not a “narrow” victory for Rowhani, it was what TIME correctly called a “landslide” since Rowhani received over fifty per cent of the vote in the first round of balloting against six other candidates. Reportedly the turnout was over 70%.

  • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

    Somebodies got to come out of this area sooner or later to have some common sense. Maybe Rowhani has dealt with us enough he can get it figured out though I would think the Supreme Leader above him would be one hell of an obstacle to overcome. And you still got the Islamic thing. Are we infidels who should be killed or not Rowhani?

  • PolicyWonk

    The role of the president in Iran isn’t the same as here in the USA. Can Rowhani’s election help? Maybe, but not likely by much.

    The previous president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, drove himself to work in a 1982 Peugeot, while the mullah’s get driven to work in Mercedes limos.

    The mullahs are the ones to keep an eye on – they are the ones that make the decisions of real significance.

    • Don Bacon

      Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khamanei is the chief of state; President Ahmadinejad is the head of government.

  • smankes

    they have the right to bomb any one they chose at any time they chose.if we get in to a war we loose. we will rebuld them better then ever make there leaders richer then ever we will suport them like we rebuld and suport every one else.mercades benz and rols royce wont be able to suport the damand for there luxury cars paid for by usa.and butiful villas for them and there famlys. paid for by us tax payers. obama will make$$$$pece with them.if they accept our apoligys$$$.peace be with them.a large pece of our money. sheldon.

  • JimBobJoe

    No.

  • bill

    He is a radical muslim. You already know he wants a nuclear weapon. Cannot believe anything he says. Besides, Irans pres is controlled by the clerics.