Iran: The Rouhani Checkmate

Published: December 12, 2013 - 17:38 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 00:41

Iran President Hassan Rouhani’s bold move to reach a historic agreement with the United States and the other five powers, opening the way to removing the festering sore of US-Iran enmity, is in line with his personal history of rescuing Iranian diplomacy from crisis with the West

Gareth Porter Virginia 

In a historic deal and a marathon round of negotiations later, Iran entered into an accord with six world powers on a plan of action that seeks to put a long list of “voluntary” limits on its nuclear programme, including disposal of most of the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. The imposition of the current accord stands for six months, ensuring no “further advances” at the Arak heavy water reactor, in return for very limited and reversible lifting of sanctions. The agreement also called for negotiation of a “comprehensive solution” that would involve a “mutually defined enrichment programme” and allow Iran to “fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” under the NPT and would produce a “comprehensive” lifting of all sanctions against Iran on account of its nuclear programme.

At first glance, Iran appeared to give up much of its negotiating leverage in the interim agreement by agreeing not just to “freeze” its enrichment programme but to scale back its stockpile of the 20 percent enriched uranium that was the primary proliferation concern of the Obama administration, and by conceding much of the more intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring system demanded by the West. But those concessions were “voluntary” and good for six months, so they remained a factor in the broader bargaining dynamics that would be in play in negotiations on a “comprehensive solution”. Iran had made such voluntary concessions in conjunction with the negotiations with the European foreign ministers, and Iran had later withdrawn concessions when they concluded that the Europeans were not acting in good faith. The newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was prepared to do the same if he concluded that the United States and its partners were not negotiating in good faith in the subsequent phase of the negotiations.

Despite the substantive negotiating chips that Iran could still play in the talks on a “comprehensive solution”, however, the success of the new sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors in sending Iran’s economy into a downward spiral was a structural factor that could be a serious drag on the negotiations. The United States had long depended on its status as the dominant military power to allow it to carry out “coercive diplomacy” with Iran, and the threat of an attack on Iran was central to US policy under the Bush administration. But that threat had lost its credibility over the years, as it became clear that the US military was opposed to war with Iran over its nuclear programme. After the new system sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors with European and Asian states in 2012 created economic turmoil in Iran, however, Obama administration officials appear to have viewed it as a diplomatic trump card equivalent to — or even more effective than — the “military option” that it had lost. In their briefing for journalists on the “first step” agreement, senior US officials repeatedly hinted that the administration was not assuming that it would reach a final agreement with Iran, despite the evidence of Iranian willingness to agree to limitations on an enrichment programme that would provide assurances against any effort to obtain a nuclear weapon. Those hints appeared to reflect a belief that it could use its new-found leverage over Iran to maintain a longer-term power advantage over the Islamic Republic, which would reduce the likelihood that the administration would actually complete a comprehensive agreement with Iran.

The build-up

In mid-October, the Iranian negotiating team, headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif, presented a comprehensive framework for an agreement on the first meeting of Iranian diplomats with the West since Rouhani’s election. That framework was the basis for the draft text that was worked out between US and Iranian diplomats in Geneva over two days in November, only to be undone by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ sabotaging.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the negotiations will be called the “Rouhani Round”, for the moderate President’s acumen and expert handling of the world leaders.

Rouhani has a well-documented record of brilliant diplomacy aimed at reaching an accommodation between Iran’s core interests and those of the West

Rouhani has a uniquely well-documented record of brilliant diplomacy aimed at reaching an accommodation between Iran’s core interests and those of the West. He was the primary Iranian policymaker on the issue of nuclear weapons during the crucial period from 2003 to mid-2005. His record makes it clear that he has long been determined to make a deal with the United States to end the long-running conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Rouhani has long been the main strategist of the Iranian political faction that is committed to opening to the West and to keeping Iran a non-nuclear weapons state. But Rouhani is also the one figure associated with the faction that has the trust of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani came up with a series of policy initiatives that offered a real possibility of actually resolving the issue between 2003 and 2005, when he was given complete control over Iran’s nuclear policy in a very difficult and domestically divisive situation. 

The extraordinary opportunity represented by Rouhani’s election can only be understood in the context of the deep and abiding division within the Iranian political elite over relations with the West. The question of whether Iran should seek accommodation with western nations, which would bring enormous economic benefit to Iran but potentially increase Western cultural and ideological influence as well, has been at the epicentre of Iranian political struggle for over three decades. That debate has been closely linked with the struggle between those who favoured more radical policies of redistribution of wealth and a high degree of independence from the global capitalist system and those who favoured reliance on market forces within Iran and the integration of Iran into the global economic system.

The leader of the political faction favouring accommodation with the West has been Hashemi Rafsanjani, President of Iran from 1989 to 1997. When he was elected President in 1989, Rafsanjani wanted to approach the United States about improving relations, but was rebuffed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, Khamenei, according to former Iranian Ambassador HosseinMousavian. Nevertheless, Rafsanjani worked to get the release of all Western hostages from Shi’a militants in Lebanon in 1991. And even after President George HW Bush reneged on his 1989 promise to reciprocate Iran’s help on the hostages, Rafsanjani tried to keep a small channel to Washington open the US oil company, CONOCO, the first two production agreements for offshore oilfields since the revolution.

Why Rouhani has Khamenei’s trust

Rouhani was Rafsanjani’s choice to become the first Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and he remained in that position for 16 years, until MahmoudAhmadinejad’s victory in the 2005 election. Although it was Rafsanjani who nominated Khamenei to become the Supreme Leader after Khomeini’s death in 1989, the political conflict between them since then is well known. But that rivalry has not affected Rouhani’s relationship with Khamenei. By working closely with the leader on a daily basis for so long, Rouhani won Khamenei’s trust.

That relationship of trust was a primary reason Rouhani was able to engineer a remarkable turnaround in Iran’s nuclear policy when he took responsibility for it in October 2003. The nuclear programme came under extraordinarily heavy pressure from the United States, the European allies and even Russia, after the previously undeclared Natanz enrichment facility was revealed in August 2002 and the IAEA found that Iran had carried out a number of nuclear experiments over many years without announcement. In August 2003, the foreign ministers of the UK, France, Germany and Russia made separate démarches asking Iran to cease enrichment activities and accept the much more intrusive inspection regime in the IAEA’s ‘Additional Protocol’. A resolution by the IAEA Board of Governors in September 2003 repeated those demands and gave Iran less than two months to take ‘corrective measures’, threatening to report it to the UN Security Council if it failed to do so.

The heavy international pressures had convinced much of Iran’s political elite that the United States and its allies were seeking to force Iran to sacrifice its internationally guaranteed right to peaceful nuclear power, and the idea of signing the Additional Protocol was widely viewed as tantamount to ‘treason’. Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, even likened it to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmanchay, which had ceded a large part of Iranian territory to Russia following the Russo-Persian War.

The  opportunity represented by Rouhani’s election can only be understood in the context of the division within the political elite over relations with the West

That was the situation Rouhani confronted when he accepted responsibility for managing nuclear policy on October 5, 2003, at Khamenei’s personal request. Despite the highly emotional Iranian response to the pressure, Rouhani concluded that Iran had no choice but to cooperate fully with the IAEA and to use diplomacy to diffuse the pressure from the international coalition against Iran. He conceived a strategy that was remarkably brave in the domestic context, of taking decisive actions to reassure the West that Iran was not trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Rouhani initiated a new policy of complete transparency in reporting to the IAEA on Iran’s past enrichment-related activities and, several days later, negotiating with the European foreign ministers on a formula that would avoid Iran being referred to the UN Security Council. The Europeans in that insisted that Iran must cease its enrichment activities. Rouhani explained the situation to Khamenei during a break, and, returning, negotiated the agreement to a temporary and voluntary halt in enrichment, as had been defined by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.

Tightening the policy against nuclear weapons

Rouhani also decided—again with Khamenei’s support—to tighten Iran’s policy against nuclear weapons by forcing government researchers to halt all nuclear weapons-related research being done in the country. There had been no government decision approving any such work, but there had been an ongoing debate over having ‘nuclear weapons capability’. Some had argued that it meant only that Iran had the capability to enrich uranium, but others had suggested that it should include having the capability to actually make a weapon, according to Tehran University political scientist Nasser Hadian.

Meanwhile, supervision of the complex of military research organizations had been loose, and some offices had begun their own research projects related to nuclear weapons. But as French Ambassador Francois Nicoullaud, who was in contact with Rouhani’s nuclear policy team at the time, told this writer, he did not believe Rouhani or Khamenei had any clear idea of what research was being done with regard to nuclear weapons.

Rouhani’s approach to the problem was straightforward. At about the same time he negotiated with the European foreign ministers, a high-ranking Iranian official informedNicoullaud, Rouhani issued a circular to all civilian and military departments and agencies other than Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, directing them to report in detail any past or present nuclear activities. The circular also ordered that any such ongoing projects were to be terminated.

Rouhanirecalled explaining to President Khatami the ‘difficulties’ they would face in carrying out the new policy in an interview with the pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper, Keyhan,two years later. “[I]t was necessary that different organizations cooperate with the official in charge of the nuclear case,” Rouhani said, “and I wasn’t sure at the time if all of them were willing to cooperate 100 percent.”

But Khamenei gave the strongest backing possible to Rouhani in that move. Just as Rouhani was sending out the nuclear circular, Khamenei gave a speech in which he said, “In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form.” Three days later, Rouhani said in a speech that Khamenei considered nuclear weapons as religiously illegal. A week later, the editor of Keyhan, HosseinShariatmadari, who was known to be close to Khamenei, told journalist Robert Collier that the Khameneifatwa had been aimed at those who were ‘clandestinely’ working on nuclear weapons. Khamenei was forcing those working on such projects to “admit that it is forbidden under Islam,” Shariatmadari said.

An associate of Rouhani’s told Nicoullaud some weeks later that they were having trouble getting some researchers to give up their ‘pet projects’. But in the end, they yielded to the new policy. Four years later, US intelligence obtained intercepted phone conversations and at least one notebook documenting the extreme unhappiness of one or more researchers at being ordered to halt their projects.

Negotiating with the Europeans

Iran’s negotiations with the UK, France and Germany in 2004=05 further demonstrate both Rouhani’s commitment to avoiding a diplomatic train wreck over the nuclear issue and the degree to which Khamenei had come to trust his judgement. After having suspended its enrichment activities voluntarily in November 2004 to create the conditions for negotiating a longer-term agreement on the issue, Rouhani and his negotiating team faced a trio of European states who seemed determined to force Iran to give up its right to enrich.

Rouhani and his nuclear team—which included Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif and Ambassador HosseinMousavian—put together a far-reaching and creative proposal under which Iran would effectively give up the option of enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. At a meeting with the European three in Paris on March 23, 2005, the Iranian negotiators tabled a proposal providing for “immediate conversion of all enriched uranium to fuel rods to preclude even the technical possibility of further enrichment.” Since Iran did not have the capability to fabricate such fuel rods itself, the plan implied that either all the low enriched uranium would have to be shipped to another country for conversion to fuel rods or that it would be done under international auspices within Iran. Once the fuel rods were fabricated, Iran would not be able to reconvert them into uranium that could be enriched to higher level without great difficulty and without being easily detected. What the Iranians wanted in return, Mousavian told Turkish academic Mustafa Kiraboglu, was security guarantees and the lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration—still holding out for regime change in Iran—made it clear to the Europeans that it would not accept any Iranian proposal that would allow Iran to have the slightest enrichment capability. After Ahmadinejad’s election in June 2005, Iran embarked on an ambitious enrichment programme. As a result, Iran now has 18,000 centrifuges rather than the few hundred it had then. Neither Iran nor the United States has since put forward anything like the far-reaching proposal Iran made in March 2005.

The real question mark surrounding the  negotiations was not whether Rouhani could deliver, but whether BarackObama was able to break out of the political constraints on US diplomacy toward Iran. The first stage of the “Rouhani Round”, which broke up after the United States circulated a draft that had been amended in multiple significant ways at the last moment of the talks—as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled later—was not particularly encouraging. But history was nonetheless made. 

Gareth Porter is an award-winning independent investigative journalist and historian. His new book, Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, will be out on February 14, 2014.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani’s bold move to reach a historic agreement with the United States and the other five powers, is in line with his personal history of rescuing Iranian diplomacy from crisis with the West
Gareth Porter Virginia

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