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Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview

Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks

In the midst of dispiriting events sweeping the region, Hassan Rouhani’s 4 August swearing in as Iran’s president offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope.

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I. Overview

In a region that recently has produced virtually nothing but bad news, Hassan Rouhani’s 4 August swearing in as Iran’s president offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope. There are still far more questions than answers: about the extent of his authority; his views on his country’s nuclear program, with which he long has been associated; and the West’s ability to display requisite flexibility and patience. But, although both sides can be expected to show caution, now is the time to put more ambitious proposals on the table, complement the multilateral talks with a bilateral U.S.-Iranian channel and expand the dialogue to encompass regional security issues.

Given his blunt criticism of the country’s trajectory, notably on the nuclear file, Rouhani’s election stunned almost all observers, and so one ought to be modest in offering retrospective interpretations of his victory. His promise of change arguably appealed to an electorate that traditionally has seized on presidential contests to try to turn the page; his more conservative rivals were deeply divided and burdened with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s desultory record; and the leadership’s quest for renewed legitimacy after the hit suffered in the controversial 2009 elections possibly led it to accept the triumph of a strong critic. Too, one could speculate that Rouhani’s success ultimately serves Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s interests, helping both to restore domestic faith in elections, one of the Islamic Republic’s political linchpins, and to reduce international pressure at a time when sanctions are inflicting unprecedented economic pain.

Questions about how Iran got to this place are overshadowed, however, by speculation regarding where it might go from here. Some, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, see Rouhani as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, the gentle façade of a regime whose nuclear ambitions have not changed one iota; others would like to view him as the saviour charged with extricating Iran from its predicament, agreeing to far-reaching nuclear concessions in exchange for commensurate sanctions relief. In this respect as well, a healthy dose of humility is required given the opaqueness of the Islamic Republic’s decision-making.

Several elements nonetheless can be of utility in seeking to make predictions. The first has to do with the nature of Iranian politics. Presidents are far from all-powerful, having to contend with myriad competing centres of authority and influence, overt and covert, of which the Supreme Leader is only the most obvious. Fundamentals have not changed: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains final say; friction between him and the president is all but inevitable; and factionalism will remain both a fact of life and a means of constraining Rouhani. At the same time, presidents are not mere figureheads; witness the differences in style and substance between Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

Secondly, Rouhani is far from an unknown. He has been a fixture of the Islamic Republic since its beginnings, a consummate insider with a track record and voluminous writings. Those offer some clues regarding his preferred approach. He brought about the first and only nuclear agreement with the West, a significant achievement given the depths of mutual mistrust, yet he also openly justified the accord as allowing Iran to complete its nuclear infrastructure even while negotiating. He has bluntly criticised his successors, yet has focused more on their bluster and reckless negotiating style than on their ultimate goals. His negotiating experience also carries mixed messages: that he feels the West let him down, causing him to suffer bitter criticism at home, may well prompt him to greater caution. In particular, at a time when the U.S. and EU are intent on limiting the extent of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Rouhani could be more inclined to offer concessions regarding that program’s transparency than its scope.

That suggests a third point. The change in presidents will usher in important changes in style and negotiating tactics but certainly will not bring about significant changes in Iran’s bottom line demands: recognition of its right to enrich and meaningful sanctions relief. A deal today is thus harder to imagine than when Rouhani last was in charge of the nuclear dossier. Positions have hardened; trust has diminished; the nuclear program has substantially advanced; and sanctions have proliferated. Western doubts about Rouhani’s ability to deliver are matched by Tehran’s scepticism that the U.S. in particular can accept a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic or that President Barak Obama has the political muscle to lift sanctions.

Such misgivings are unavoidable but should not be paralysing. Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) have become stale; now is as promising a time as is likely to occur to refresh them. This could be achieved in three interlocking ways: altering the substance of a possible deal, combining a confidence-building agreement on Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment with presentation of the contours of a possible nuclear endgame, as Crisis Group has proposed; modifying modalities of the negotiations by complementing multilateral discussions with confidential, bilateral U.S.-Iranian engagement; and expanding the scope of those talks to include regional security matters.

The promise embodied by Rouhani’s election can grow or quickly fizzle. As he takes office and comes face to face with myriad domestic and foreign challenges, it would be a good idea for the West to encourage him to move in the right direction.

Washington/Brussels, 13 August 2013

Saudi defence ministry spokesman Colonel Turki Al-Malik displays remains of the missiles which Saudi government says were used to attack an Aramco oil facility, during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 18 September 2019 Ministry of Defence of Saudi Arabia's Twitter

Iran Briefing Note #14

Iran Briefing Notes highlight and provide context for the previous week’s major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks developments on key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East.

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates.

Events of Note

11 September: President Hassan Rouhani tells President Emmanuel Macron that “negotiating with the U.S. under sanctions is pointless”, adds that Iran’s JCPOA breaches are reversible.

12 September: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reports “very serious upsurge” in attempted Iranian attacks from Syria.

14 September: Riyadh confirms significant attacks against two Saudi Aramco sites, halving its oil production. Huthi rebels in Yemen claim responsibility; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contends “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply”.

15 September: President Donald Trump says U.S. “locked and loaded” following Aramco attack, pending Saudi assessment of responsibility, hinting Iran was behind it.

15 September: Chairman of INSTEX, Michael Bock, begins visit to Iran for meetings with senior trade and finance officials.

16 September: Saudi government says “weapons used in the [Aramco] attack were Iranian weapons”.

16 September: Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detains ship and crew of 11 allegedly smuggling Iranian fuel to the United Arab Emirates.

16 September: President Rouhani calls for U.S. withdrawal from Syria during summit with Presidents Recep Tayip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin.

16 September: Taliban delegation and Iranian officials meet in Tehran.

16 September: Iran sends U.S. letter through the Swiss disavowing any role in Aramco attack and warning of reprisal for “any moves”. 

17 September: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asserts that if U.S. rejoins the nuclear deal, Washington can attend P5+1 talks on the JCPOA; otherwise, there will be no negotiation at any level.

17 September: Huthis warn Saudi Arabia that “our long hand can reach wherever we want”.

18 September: President Trump tells U.S. Treasury Department “to substantially increase” Iran sanctions.

18 September: Saudi Arabia signs on to U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct.

18 September: Saudi-led coalition assesses that the Aramco attack “originated from the north and undoubtedly was supported by Iran”.

18 September: In Jeddah, Secretary Pompeo declares Aramco strike “was an Iranian attack”, adds “we are working to build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter them”.

Up in Smoke

A twin attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil company shook the region and once again brought the spectre of a regional war to the fore.

Why it matters: Iran has rejected U.S. claims that it carried out the 14 September strikes against Saudi energy facilities from its soil, with President Hassan Rouhani on 16 September contending that “the Yemeni people have to respond to … many acts of aggression” from the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition. But if Iran’s responsibility is conclusively determined, and especially if, as U.S. officials are suggesting, the operation was launched from Iranian territory, it would constitute a substantial escalation against a regional rival and major departure from Tehran’s standard practice of using local allies to keep a degree of plausible deniability. President Trump on 15 September warned that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to respond, but subsequently also noted that “I’m not looking to get into [a] new conflict”. Trump has also called on the U.S. Treasury Department to “substantially increase” sanctions on Iran; it remains to be seen whether this is a complement to, or in lieu of, a military response. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has invited UN experts to analyse debris from the attack, and on 18 September assessed that while the operation was “unquestionably sponsored by Iran”, its precise origin was still to be determined. As Crisis Group has previously argued, the current cycle of U.S. “maximum pressure” and Iranian retaliation on the regional and nuclear fronts is a recipe for growing volatility and a disastrous regional conflagration. Retaliatory strikes by the U.S. would likely prompt a wider response from Iran, as it has threatened. De-escalating tensions along the lines proposed by France remains the best path forward, even as the stakes grow higher and the odds longer. 

Prisoners’ Dilemma

The Iranian judiciary on 17 September affirmed that three Australian citizens “have been detained in two cases and indictments have been issued for both”.

Why it matters: On 12 September, the Australian government confirmed that “three Australians are being held in prison in Iran”; media reports identified them as Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Jolie King and Mark Firkin. Moore-Gilbert, a Melbourne University lecturer, has been indicted on espionage charges while King and Firkin are alleged to have photographed “military and banned zones”. The trio are the latest cases of foreign and dual nationals whom Iran has disclosed to have detained, including citizens of the U.S., UK and France. Iranian diplomats typically contend that these cases come under the purview of the judiciary, but, as in the case of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s April 2019 offer of a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap, acknowledge that the rule of Iranian law may be amenable to diplomatic exigencies. Any steps by Tehran to release foreign and dual nationals would help de-escalate tensions between Iran and Western states.

What to Watch

22 September: Iran marks Sacred Defence Week on 39th anniversary of start of Iran-Iraq war.

24 September: President Trump addresses the UN General Assembly.

25 September: President Rouhani addresses the UN General Assembly.

5 November: Iran’s next announced deadline for further reducing its JCPOA commitments.

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates.