Iran: What New Nuclear Opportunity?

Those optimistic about a nuclear deal under Rowhani should be much more guarded.

As Hassan Rowhani embarks on his presidency in Iran, there are competing narratives regarding his image of moderation. Some are emphasizing that he brings with him a new message of hope and opportunity on the international front, while others view him as a more polite but nevertheless staunch supporter of the Islamic regime and its well-established foreign policy. Oddly enough, no one that is highlighting the new opportunity that has opened up on the Iranian nuclear front has adequately answered one essential question: based on what?

Until there is a good answer to this question—or any indication of why we might expect a change in basic Iranian interests on the nuclear issue—all of the talk about a new opportunity lacks credibility. In order to have “meaningful dialogue” on the nuclear file there is an essential prerequisite: the two sides must have developed a common interest in reaching a deal. For Iran that would imply that it has given up on its goal of developing a nuclear-weapons capability. That, unfortunately, has not yet happened. Until there is indication of a real shift—not based on a general sense of the new president’s more moderate approach, but rather grounded in actual Iranian positions regarding its nuclear program—there is no realistic basis for expecting a different or more productive negotiations dynamic than what has been experienced over the past ten years.

Not only has there been no change for the better as far as Iran’s nuclear file, but Rowhani has clarified unequivocally that there will be no suspension of uranium enrichment, which is a basic demand of the P5+1. He has said that Iran’s nuclear program may become more transparent but will certainly not stop. More advanced centrifuges have been installed at Natanz, and suspicions regarding hidden facilities continue. The plutonium route to a military capability is on course, with the reactor at Arak due to become operational in 2014. And stockpiles of enriched uranium are growing.

So what exactly are the reassuring comments that have been made by Rowhani? That he is interested in dialogue? Of course he is: in order to (ab)use his image of moderation to get sanctions off his back, but not to reverse Iran’s military nuclear ambitions. He has offered no new proposals, and has said that he is looking for the United States to make the first move by taking “practical steps”. And one might guess that if Washington does not take this step—namely, lifting sanctions—it will be accused of squandering the “new moderation” that Rowhani has displayed. Those clinging to the narrative of moderation should also take note of the statements that Rowhani has made on another important foreign policy issue: Syria. The new president is strongly supporting the Assad regime, and has blamed Israel for being behind what is happening in that country.

Some commentators over the past several years have tried to make the case that if Iran is pressured, this will only force it to move away from a deal, perhaps going so far as to exit the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In this scenario, failed diplomacy would be the fault of those that pushed too hard. This misguided conception has finally been proven wrong: it is now broadly recognized that the pressure of biting sanctions is actually what brought Iran back to the negotiating table in 2012 (albeit not yet to a deal). It also played a role in the election of Rowhani. Therefore, if Iran ultimately goes nuclear, it will not be because Rowhani was forced into a corner due to continued international sanctions, but rather because Iran has for years manipulated the West, and proven more successful in advancing its nuclear aims than the West has been in its efforts to reverse them.

The only reason Iran has to negotiate on the nuclear issue is to put an end to the pressure it is suffering. This was Rowhani’s approach already back in 2003, when he sought to avoid the Iranian nuclear file being referred to the UN Security Council for sanctions and possible military attack by the United States. By the same token, pressure is the only card the West has to play in terms of leverage on Iran, and therefore cannot give it up. Without pressure—indeed, without greatly increased pressure—Iran will never negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue, especially now that it is so close to its goal. Blaming the West for pressing too hard is something that merely plays into Iran’s hands.

Anyone that claims that there is a new opportunity for diplomacy must explain what they are basing this assessment on—what evidence they have to support their expectation that something has changed in Iran that has real implications for its military nuclear ambitions. Short of that, the only new game in town is in the realm of images—engendering false hopes and expectations on the nuclear front. This will only grant more time for Iran to move toward a military capability, while providing new and cynical ammunition for those bent on blaming the United States for pressing too hard, rather than Iran for its dangerous march to the bomb.