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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
The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

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

The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

Originally published in Arms Control Association

A change in U.S. administrations brought with it something rare in the often-acrimonious relationship between Washington and Tehran: a point of agreement. Nearly three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally exited the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), both sides concur on the need to restore core elements of the deal that have been sorely tested since: strict restrictions on and rigorous monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Yet, the shared strategic imperative of full mutual compliance remains out of reach so long as a tactical deadlock continues on how to achieve it.

An explanation of the convergence of U.S. and Iranian interest in reviving the 2015 agreement begins with a stocktaking of the state of play inherited by President Joe Biden in January 2021. Under Trump, the United States abandoned the JCPOA in favor of a “maximum pressure” strategy defined by a sweeping deployment of unilateral sanctions and a broad set of accompanying demands on further restricting Iran’s nuclear activity, halting its ballistic missile development, and containing its regional influence.[fn]“After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/defense/event/after-the-deal-new-iran-strategy.Hide Footnote The financial impact on Iran has been substantial, with the World Bank describing U.S. sanctions, along with the more recent global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on energy markets, as a “triple shock” on the country’s economy.[fn]The World Bank, “Iran Economic Monitor: Weathering the Triple-Shock,” Fall 2020, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/287811608721990695/pdf/Iran-Economic-Monitor-Weathering-the-Triple-Shock.pdf.Hide Footnote

If the Trump administration had hoped Tehran would bend to its will, however, it was mistaken. In mid-2019, Tehran launched a counterstrategy, dubbed “maximum resistance.” Rather than concede to the administration’s demands and to demonstrate that what it viewed as tantamount to an economic siege would not go unanswered, Iran retaliated against the United States and its regional allies directly and through local proxies in places such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. It also methodically breached its own obligations under the JCPOA on the contention that the evaporation of the financial benefits the deal had promised justified a reduction in its own compliance.

The cumulative impact of Iran’s JCPOA violations, which have escalated in line with a law the Iranian Parliament passed in December 2020 after the killing of a top nuclear scientist, allegedly by Israel, has been to substantially erode the agreement’s nonproliferation provisions in three different respects. The first relates to an expansion of uranium enrichment that cuts the timeline for producing one bomb’s worth of fissile material from a year to approximately three months; the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report pegs Tehran’s enriched uranium stockpile at 14 times the JCPOA cap of 202.8 kilograms and at an upper enrichment rate of 20 percent uranium-235 instead of the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal.[fn]International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015): Report by the Director-General,” GOV/2021/10, February 23, 2021.

The second concerns the verification and monitoring authorities of the IAEA, which under the nuclear deal is afforded JCPOA-specific transparency accesses, as well as access under the additional protocol to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran suspended these authorities in February, although IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi negotiated a three-month “bilateral technical understanding” to maintain key oversight capabilities.[fn]“Joint Statement by the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the AEOI and the Director General of the IAEA,” IAEA, February 21, 2021, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-the-vice-president-of-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-and-head-of-the-aeoi-and-the-director-general-of-the-iaea.Hide Footnote The agency is also set to press Iran on outstanding questions relating to past work at undeclared sites during technical discussions scheduled for this month. Finally, although the expansion of uranium enrichment can be undone and IAEA access fully restored, the third area of concern involves ongoing nuclear research and development activities on advanced centrifuges and uranium-metal production that deliver, as the three European JCPOA parties note, “irreversible knowledge gain.”[fn]For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote

The full article can be read on Arms Control Association's website 
5. For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote