A Historic Window of Opportunity and Its Challenges


By Hooshang Amirahmadi

After years of non-communication or miscommunication, the United States and Iran are in direct dialogue over Iran’s nuclear program. This is a great beginning, but will the engagement lead to a settlement? There are the idealists who see the deal all but done, the defeatists who see no chance for a breakthrough, and the realists who see the development as a historic opportunity that is constrained by serious challenges on both sides.

More significantly, there are the supporters and the detractors. While the latter remain dominant in both sides, they are increasingly becoming defensive given their lack of a better alternative to a diplomatic solution to the protracted conflict. The fact is, more western sanctions and threats of force have resulted in more Iranian centrifuges and enriched uranium at progressively higher grades. The detractors have indeed disserved themselves by standing against diplomacy.

True, sanctions have made Iran offer the P5+1 group of nations a more “reasonable deal” than in the past; but continuation of the existing sanctions or adding more to them will not make Iran capitulate more— all serious nations have red lines. On the contrary, more sanctions will surely make Iran continue on the current nuclear path, resulting, more likely than not, in an American military attack and/or an Iranian nuclear bomb.

For over two decades, I have consistently been on the side of the realists and supporters, knowing well that for traversing the bumpy road, Washington and Tehran needed as much realism and support as possible. Indeed, I never wavered in my belief that eventually the two governments would arrive at a mutually beneficial destination. That time might have come, and we must be more than ever prepared to support the current engagement with a sense of realism.

Evidence suggests that both governments see it in their best interest to settle the nuclear dispute at the intersection of Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear technology and America’s demand that Iran never build a nuclear bomb. More significantly, after years of mutual mistrust, the two sides seem to think that a verifiable deal is possible and within reach. They are not wrong in this assessment.

While the details remain confidential, from the media leaks, we know the key parameters of the emerging deal. Iran is expected to significantly slow the pace, narrow the scope, limit the amount, and reduce the level of its nuclear enrichment. The country is also expected to allow access and intrusive inspections of its nuclear sites by accepting the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. While Iran may not be left with a practical nuclear program, it can nevertheless claim to have gained its “inalienable nuclear rights.”

In return for such a symbolic end-state for Iran’s nuclear program, President Rouhani expects to receive, and indeed must receive, significant, if not total, relief from crippling multilateral and unilateral sanctions, as otherwise he would not be able to deliver the deal. This is where, I believe, the challenge lies. How will the two sides reciprocate relieving sanctions for limiting enrichment? Logically, they should be able to devise an incremental give-and-take approach.

Practically, however, the approach requires a level of mutual trust and confidence that they still lack. Complicating the situation is the pressure from the detractors. In Iran, the fundamentalists want President Rouhani to first take and then give (that is, sanctions relief to precede enrichment limits). Meanwhile in the US, the hawks want President Obama to first take and then give (that is, enrichment limits to precede sanctions relief). And there are the hawkish detractors beyond the two countries who do not want a give-and-take deal to begin with; they want to take only!

Can the two governments overcome the challenge of mistrust, and devise a fair incremental procedure? While President Rouhani currently has support from the Supreme Leader, who has no trust in the US, that backing remains conditional on him being able to significantly reduce sanctions and free Iranian frozen assets. Notwithstanding the Supreme Leader’s support, Rouhani’s nascent government faces a serious challenge from its conservative religious rivals who lost the election but remain strong.

The conservatives do not trust the US, view it as weak, and do not think that Iran needs to make serious compromises to settle the nuclear dispute. They consistently remind President Rouhani of American economic problems and its difficulties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt, among other countries. At the same time, they choose to ignore their own problems! President Rouhani’s rivals are already accusing him of being “naïve” and oblivious to the American’s “dishonest game.” They also see the secrecy surrounding the negotiations as a conspiracy against their Islamic system.

Yet, the main problem President Rouhani faces is time. To maintain the Leader’s support and keep the rivals at bay, he must reach a reasonable deal with the US and reduce sanctions significantly, all within a quick amount of time. There is another reason for President Rouhani’s often trumpeted desire to settle the nuclear dispute within the shortest possible time: the next Iranian Parliamentary elections in February 2015. Unless he demonstrates results, he could lose public support, and his rivals would use the opportunity to gain even more seats in the Parliament, and use their power to cripple his administration.

Thus, by opening to the US, President Rouhani has taken a serious risk, making himself vulnerable to the American whims and the vagaries of his domestic opposition. No wonder that he seriously wants to compromise as much and as fast as possible, and gain a proportionate concession on sanctions. Thus, unless President Obama is willing and able to help, President Rouhani would have a short honeymoon and the chance for a breakthrough with the Islamic Republic will be lost.

But the challenges President Obama faces are no less serious, though they are more manageable. While many of the sanctions are written in law and are controlled by the Congress, they also give the President maximum leeway— the power to waive. But to use the waiver, the White House must certify in writing that the full enforcing of the law will harm American national interest. The State Department has used the waiver to allow 8 countries to continue buying Iranian crude oil at a much reduced level. But will President Obama use the waiver more boldly? I doubt he will.

Obama has been a risk-averse president when it comes to complicated international matters. He also has many fights to settle with the Congress, and will not want to add Iran to his fighting basket. But, President Obama has also a stake in seeing the Iranian nuclear conflict resolved through a reasonable deal. He could make history and help his party win in the next presidential election. This conflicting tendency between risk-averting and legacy-making is at the heart of the President’s vagueness, double-talk, and indecisiveness on opening to Iran.

While Obama may not wish to challenge hawkish Congressmen, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Republican Party, he surely wishes to strengthen President Rouhani’s hands in dealing with his conservative rivals during the negotiations. To that end, the administration has been flirting with the idea of unfreezing Iranian assets and allowing Iran to purchase spare parts for its aging civilian planes. This approach will serve the risk-averse and hesitant President who does not wish to trust the untested Mr. Rouhani. While somewhat helpful in the start, Obama’s lack of courage and clarity will ultimately hurt the Iranian President.

A historic window of opportunity has opened in US-Iran relations and there is a real chance that a reasonable deal could be reached to the Iranian nuclear program. However, many forces remain to be convinced and many obstacles to be removed if the bumpy road is to be traversed to a mutually beneficial destination. The time has come for the conflicting parties to listen to the voice of reason, and give peace a chance by putting aside their maximum demands and work cooperatively and courageously in the best interests of all involved.

This article is part of Insider & Insight, a new AIC program aimed at providing different perspectives and analyses on key developments in US-Iran relations. The commentary and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of American Iranian Council.