Paul Pillar

The Stars Align in Tehran

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program. Only those outside Iran who are determined to subvert the prospect of a better relationship with the Islamic Republic can deny that there now is a major opportunity for achieving one and specifically for settling the nuclear issue in a manner fully protective of U.S. interests.

Legitimate questions have been raised about how much flexibility can be expected from the Iranian side when, under the convoluted Iranian constitution, it is not the president but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say on many issues. But it would be impossible for Rouhani, who has had a close and longstanding relationship with Khamenei, and the president's administration to do and say everything they have over the past few weeks if this ran against the wishes of the supreme leader. Now Khamenei, in addition to past indications of his views such as placing a religious imprimatur on a rejection of nuclear weapons, has given more direct evidence that he also is thinking in terms of a different course for U.S.-Iranian relations. He gave a speech to commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that paralleled in important respects a speech that Rouhani had just given to the IRGC. Khamenei indicated that he is quite in favor of “correct” diplomacy as long as Iran's honor is protected. “Heroic flexibility” is how the supreme leader's own staff translated into English the concept that he was propounding.

Khamenei also—and this is where his speech most resembled Rouhani's—said the IRGC should not get immersed in politics. This admonition indirectly recognized the potential of hardliners in the Guard and elsewhere in the regime to be spoilers. Even the supreme leader cannot necessarily carry the day if such hardliners are given sufficient ammunition.

Unfortunately some outside Iran, led most conspicuously by the current prime minister of Israel, are doing their best to give them ammunition. Benjamin Netanyahu continues his effort to stoke perpetual hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last year in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly he entertained us with cartoon bombs. This year he will make demands that include what he fully knows would be deal-stoppers (specifically, an end to all Iranian enrichment of uranium). His efforts are most conspicuously being aided in the United States by Senator Lindsey Graham, who is so amenable to letting Netanyahu lead the United States into a war with Iran that, even before any negotiators have had a chance to sit down following Rouhani's election, he has announced his intention to introduce a resolution calling for such a war.

The late Abba Eban, the silver-tongued Israeli foreign minister, once famously said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The circumstances, and Palestinian preferences and policies, that underlay his remark changed greatly long ago. But his apothegm might apply to much of the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. It would, tragically, apply all the more if the current opportunity is missed, either because of the ammunition being supplied to Iranian hardliners or because the side led by the United States simply does not put on the negotiating table the sanctions relief necessary to strike a deal.