Iran’s Dynamic Duo Promises New Relations

Will Rouhani and Zarif, the new president and foreign minister, deliver more than promises? They have in the past.

National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Sept. 19, 2013, 11 a.m.

The last time Has­san Rouh­ani came West to ne­go­ti­ate over Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram, he was sweat­ing pro­fusely. Rouh­ani, who was then Ir­an’s chief nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­at­or and is now Ir­an’s pres­id­ent, was very nervous, re­calls a European dip­lo­mat who was part of those talks in Geneva in 2005. Clothed then as now in cler­ic­al garb, Rouh­ani gave a sense of be­ing ham­strung by the hard­liners back in Tehran, start­ing with Su­preme Lead­er Ayatol­lah Ali Khame­nei. “He fi­nally com­mit­ted to a three-month sus­pen­sion” of urani­um en­rich­ment, says the dip­lo­mat. “But first he had to stop the ses­sion in the middle to con­sult with Tehran.”

The tent­at­ive deal quickly fell apart. The Europeans prom­ised little in re­turn and soon after came the elec­tion of the hard­line anti-Amer­ic­an Pres­id­ent Mah­moud Ah­mad­ine­jad, who re­nounced the freeze, broke the seals the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency had placed on Ir­an’s con­ver­sion fa­cil­it­ies at Is­fa­han, and pushed ahead with work at oth­er fa­cil­it­ies, in­clud­ing the secret un­der­ground site called Fordo. 

Eight years later Ah­mad­ine­jad is gone and Ir­an is chaf­ing un­der ever-tight­er sanc­tions. And now Ah­mad­ine­jad’s suc­cessor, Rouh­ani, is com­ing to New York for the an­nu­al meet­ings of the U.N. Gen­er­al As­sembly next week, seek­ing a meet­ing with Pres­id­ent Obama and telling NBC News on Wed­nes­day that this time he has “suf­fi­cient polit­ic­al lat­it­ude” to ne­go­ti­ate a last­ing pact that could end the threat of war between Ir­an and the United States.

Is it true? Some Ir­an ex­perts are rais­ing ex­pect­a­tions that between Rouh­ani’s rise to power and the ap­point­ment of Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif as for­eign min­is­ter, Tehran may be ser­i­ous this time about ne­go­ti­at­ing a halt to urani­um en­rich­ment and open­ing up its fa­cil­it­ies. Za­rif, a ca­reer dip­lo­mat edu­cated at the Uni­versity of Den­ver, has con­duc­ted per­haps more dir­ect ne­go­ti­ations with Amer­ic­ans than any oth­er Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cial. “You can­not dis­reg­ard what’s happened. There is a sea change in style,” says Nich­olas Burns, the former un­der­sec­ret­ary of State who handled Ir­an for much of the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I think the sanc­tions have had a pro­found im­pact. They were be­gun by Bush and strengthened by Obama and they are pro­du­cing an en­tirely dif­fer­ent re­sponse than when I was work­ing on this is­sue.”

In Feb­ru­ary, the U.S. and the West im­posed some of the toughest sanc­tions yet, cut­ting off a sub­stan­tial por­tion of Tehran’s ac­cess to its oil-gen­er­ated for­eign re­serves in over­seas banks. Ac­cord­ing to es­tim­ates provided to The As­so­ci­ated Press at the end of Au­gust, Ir­an is un­able to ac­cess 44 per­cent of its monthly earn­ings from crude oil ex­ports, rais­ing doubts about Tehran’s abil­ity to prop up its plum­met­ing cur­rency, the ri­al, and stop in­fla­tion.

Rouh­ani’s speech at the U.N. next week is also ex­pec­ted to mark a dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence from Ah­mad­ine­jad’s fiery ad­dresses. At his in­aug­ur­a­tion — to which he in­vited Javi­er So­lana, the former European nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­at­or, and oth­er West­ern of­fi­cials — Rouh­ani pro­moted the idea of en­gage­ment and mod­er­a­tion in a bid to end sanc­tions.

Oth­er re­ports sug­gest that the Ir­a­ni­an eco­nomy re­mains re­si­li­ent, and Ir­an hawks cau­tion that there has al­ways been reas­on to doubt Rouh­ani’s sin­cer­ity. The soft-spoken pres­id­ent has proved skilled in the past at buy­ing time by ap­pear­ing reas­on­able and con­cili­at­ory, even as he, like oth­ers in the Is­lam­ic re­gime, has com­mit­ted him­self to mov­ing ahead with urani­um en­rich­ment. In a speech in 2005, Rouh­ani de­scribed how Ir­an’s strategy was to di­vide the West, play­ing Amer­ica’s hard­line po­s­i­tion off against oth­ers of the five veto-bear­ing per­man­ent mem­bers, in­clud­ing China and Rus­sia, along with Ger­many. He ac­know­ledged ex­ploit­ing “the in­tense com­pet­i­tion” among West­ern coun­tries in nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations, say­ing “we can use that com­pet­i­tion to our ad­vant­age.” The In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency con­cluded earli­er this year that Ir­an is speed­ing up its ac­cu­mu­la­tion of nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al and in­stalling next-gen­er­a­tion cent­ri­fuges. 

Still, a softer tone com­ing from Khame­nei and the re­turn to power of Za­rif, Ir­an’s former U.N. am­bas­sad­or in New York, sug­gests that this could in­deed be a genu­ine new ef­fort to find com­prom­ise. Za­rif has of­ten sought to cre­ate new chan­nels of dis­course with Wash­ing­ton, which broke re­la­tions with Tehran in 1980 after the host­age crisis, al­though he, like Rouh­ani, has al­most al­ways failed. Start­ing when he was deputy for­eign min­is­ter at­tend­ing a 2001 con­fer­ence in Bonn on the gov­ernance of post-Taliban Afgh­anistan, Za­rif reg­u­larly dined and had cof­fee with the Amer­ic­an del­eg­ate, James Dob­bins (who is today the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spe­cial rep­res­ent­at­ive for Afgh­anistan and Pakistan). In an in­ter­view in the mid-2000s, Dob­bins re­called that Za­rif made a num­ber of con­struct­ive sug­ges­tions throughout the meet­ing.

“Once, in late Novem­ber, we were hav­ing cof­fee in one of the sit­ting rooms after [the U.N. rep­res­ent­at­ive] cir­cu­lated a draft of the agree­ment lay­ing out the new Afghan gov­ern­ment,” Dob­bins re­called. “Za­rif said, with a cer­tain twinkle in his eye: ‘I don’t think there’s any­thing in it that men­tions demo­cracy. Don’t you think there could be some com­mit­ment to demo­crat­iz­a­tion?’ This was be­fore the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion had dis­covered demo­cracy as a pan­acea for the Middle East. I said that’s a good idea.” The pro­vi­sion was ad­ded. “Then he said, ‘It also doesn’t men­tion in­ter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. Don’t we think the new Afghan gov­ern­ment ought to be com­mit­ted to fight­ing in­ter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism?’ As far as I know that was put in too,” Dob­bins said. “The Ir­a­ni­ans really do think they run a demo­crat­ic so­ci­ety, in which even the Su­preme Lead­er is elec­ted, al­beit in­dir­ectly.” Dob­bins said that Za­rif helped him by pres­sur­ing the Afghans to come to agree­ment on the new gov­ern­ment at a crit­ic­al mo­ment.

Za­rif was also in­stru­ment­al in an abort­ive secret at­tempt in the spring of 2003, us­ing the then-Swiss am­bas­sad­or to Tehran, Tim Guldimann, as an in­ter­me­di­ary, to start up broad-based talks with the United States on ma­jor out­stand­ing is­sues, in­clud­ing the nuc­le­ar pro­gram and Ir­a­ni­an sup­port for Hezbol­lah. None of these ne­go­ti­ations suc­ceeded, but they may provide something to build on a dec­ade later.

Rouh­ani and Za­rif have been on a West­ern charm of­fens­ive in re­cent days, even tweet­ing Rosh Hasha­nah greet­ings on the oc­ca­sion of the Jew­ish New Year, a clear de­par­ture in tone from the vir­u­lently anti-Semit­ic Ah­mad­ine­jad and his hard­line gov­ern­ment. 

“I don’t think it’s a gim­mick,” says Burns. “I think the Ir­a­ni­ans are clearly try­ing to po­s­i­tion them­selves to es­tab­lish a good basis for talks with the United States.” But he, like oth­er dip­lo­mats, says the only proof will come if Tehran agrees to what should be Wash­ing­ton’s open­ing po­s­i­tion: the vari­ous U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tions dat­ing back to 2006 that de­mand that Tehran cease the en­rich­ment of urani­um. 

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