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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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. 

What We're Following See More »
How Many Signatures Has the Petition for Trump’s Tax Returns Received?
31 minutes ago

More than 1 million, setting a record. More than 100,000 signatures triggers an official White House response.

Senate Intel Looks to Preserve Records of Russian Interference
31 minutes ago

"The Senate Intelligence Committee is seeking to ensure that records related to Russia’s alleged intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections are preserved as it begins investigating that country’s ties to the Trump team. The panel sent more than a dozen letters to 'organizations, agencies and officials' on Friday, asking them to preserve materials related to the congressional investigation, according to a Senate aide, who was not authorized to comment publicly. The Senate Intelligence Committee is spearheading the most comprehensive probe on Capitol Hill of Russia’s alleged activities in the elections."

Deportation, Detention Rules Released
32 minutes ago

Memos issued by the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday night "implemented sweeping changes to the way immigration policy is enforced, making clear that millions of people living illegally in the U.S. are now subject to deportation and pushing authorities to fast-track the removal of many of them. ... The policy calls for enlisting local authorities to enforce immigration law, jailing more people while they wait for their hearings and trying to send border crossers back to Mexico to await proceedings, even if they aren’t Mexican."

White House to Give McMaster Carte Blanche
17 hours ago
Russia Compiling Dossier on Trump’s Mind
20 hours ago

Retired Russian diplomats and members of Vladimir Putin's staff are compiling a dossier "on Donald Trump's psychological makeup" for the Russian leader. "Among its preliminary conclusions is that the new American leader is a risk-taker who can be naïve, according to a senior Kremlin adviser."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.