Commentary

Can Diplomacy End Iran's Nuclear Program?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Now that it seems possible that Syria’s chemical weapon cache can be removed or controlled through diplomatic pressure, many observers are starting to hope that the entire Syrian conflict can benefit from the recent flurry of diplomatic activity. This optimism has spread to the Iranian nuclear issue after last week’s UN General Assembly meeting, and even this thorny problem suddenly seems ready for a breakthrough solution. For many (especially in Israel and the Gulf), however, this attitude amounts to wishful thinking. Especially in the case of Iran, they warn, one must be careful not to underestimate the opponent’s ability to deceive.

Returning to Iran, newly elected president Hassan Rouhani was greeted by a public that was split on whether he had gone too far in reaching out to the Americans. For some, like Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, “the achievements made during President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations can lead to the resolution of foreign policy problems. What happened in New York ‘is a good sign of the start of a process to reach a fair solution to end finding excuses and resolve the country’s foreign policy problems,’ Ayatollah Rafsanjani said during a meeting of the Expediency Council on Saturday.”

Still, Rouhani took great care not to appear too eager for a meeting with President Obama, lest he offend some of his constituencies back in Iran. As Al Hayat’s Walid Choucair noted over the weekend, Rouhani “preferred caution in choosing his words and phrases denoting openness. He preferred to abandon the ‘coincidence’ of meeting with Obama in the halls of the UN, which had been worked on by Rohani’s team. This would avoid angering the hard-liners in his country, after the Revolutionary Guard warned the Iranian president about trusting in U.S. policy, one day before he traveled to New York. Rohani also failed to hide his caution during some of his closed-door meetings when it came to the difficulty of arriving at agreements over pending issues on the regional scene, from Bahrain to the Gulf, and Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, when he undertakes his expected trip to Saudi Arabia in the middle of October.”

Rouhani’s wariness regarding the influence of the Revolutionary Guards is also the subject of Huda Husseini’s analysis in the Arab daily Asharq Alawsat: “There is no doubt that over the past years, the IRGC has played a highly significant role in shaping the regime’s policies at all levels, be they military, political, economic or social. Rouhani does not want the guards to turn against him; even more, he is aware of the sensitive power hierarchies within the Iranian regime. Therefore, even if he has the desire to act differently, there are no guarantees that he could. The guards have shown their true might to Rouhani, and he knows who is, in fact, ruling the country. This begs the question: What makes one stronger, being supported by the Ayatollah or by the Revolutionary Guards?”

Regardless of the domestic and foreign pressure felt by both leaders, the Khaleej Times editorial argues that the time has come for both Obama and Rouhani to seize this window of opportunity and make the most of it: “The initiative that was seized by President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani, as they spoke on telephone, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session is a statesmanship gesture. This needs to be followed up and a well-orchestrated plan of action can help both the countries address misgivings on issues ranging from Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to its support to Hezbollah and the like....Rather than wasting the goodwill that was courageously earned by both the leaders, Tehran and Washington can do a better job by nominating peace emissaries as the way to go ahead. They could then sit down for an informal conversation that could lead to composite dialogue between the two states covering issues that range from trade and tourism to intricate aspects such as uranium enrichment. It’s a moment of ‘we can’ for Obama and Rohani.”

Despite the optimism expressed by some, skepticism and pessimism about the prospect in the short term to come to some kind of a negotiated agreement, remain the rule. For example, in his op-ed in the Saudi daily Arab News, Hassan Barari makes it clear that “The Iranian leadership needs to understand that nothing short of a deal would create an environment that would be conducive for lifting sanctions. It will not be a simple decision for Obama to make. On the contrary, the Congress is suspicious of Iran’s intention....Although the ‘heroic flexibility’ that Khamenei advocates can empower Rowhani to be more flexible on the nuclear negotiations, this pragmatism — though needed — is a drop in the bucket given the genuine fear that Iran may be opting for a strategic deception. Apart from talking about the need for reaching a deal with the West, the Iranians are yet to offer concrete measures to allay the West’s fears.”

Similarly, Eyad Abu Shakra is convinced that the current ‘diplomatic moment’ is being utilized to the maximum by the Iranian regime so that it can get make some breathing space while it plots its next move: “Politicians in the Arab world and the international community are well aware that the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei remains the real decision-maker in Tehran and that the velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of Jurists) project remains in full swing, being carried out under the slogan of “resistance” which many feel has lost its meaning. As for the change in the presidency, this is just a transitional period for the Iranian administration in order to take a breath and seize the opportunity.”

Others are quick to point out that the question of engaging Iran goes beyond the nuclear question. Al Hayat’s Hassan Haidar argues strenuously against making the diplomatic negotiations with Iran solely about the latter’s nuclear program: “there are other issues, apart from enrichment levels and the possibility of obtaining a nuclear bomb, which must also be included in Iran’s newly-arisen ‘moderation,’ if Rohani’s leadership seeks to prove that it is serious about alleviating the tension with the Arab World. Otherwise, the flexibility being displayed consists merely of diplomatic expressions and oratory rhetoric. Indeed, ‘good neighborliness’ has certain conditions that must be met and certain standards that must be respected.”

Strangely enough, while Haidar sees the Obama administration single-mindedness toward the issue of the nuclear threat as evidence of Israel’s influence on U.S. regional policy, Jerusalem Post’s Isi Leibler laments the pressure the U.S. president is putting on the Israeli government: “It is unconscionable that even during this turbulent period, with the upheavals in Syria and Egypt, the Obama administration blinds itself to the real barriers to peace and exploits the Iranian nuclear threat as a vehicle to pressure Israel to maintain this Alice-in-Wonderland negotiation charade. By demanding that we make further unilateral territorial concessions in the absence of ironclad security (which is currently impossible), the U.S. is pressuring us to gamble with our lives and future.”

Judging from a recent Saudi Gazette editorial, Leibler might be right that the recent diplomatic thaw might put pressure on Israel, but not for the reasons he cites: “Whatever the final outcome of the efforts to break a decade-long diplomatic deadlock over Iran's nuclear program, they are shedding an uncomfortable light on Israel's nuclear arsenal. That is why Israel stormed out of the UN during Iranian President Hassan Rohani's speech last week....So even if there is a deal with Iran, it should not be an end in itself. Instead it should be the first step toward nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. This means Washington admitting the very existence of Israel’s massive nuclear arsenal that casts a long shadow over the region.”


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