United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

What Rouhani's Week in New York Means for Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

The following article was originally published by Iran@Brookings.

Suzanne Maloney

      Last week's New York visit by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fell short of any expectations that might have been set by his historic American debut only a year ago. While there was plenty of pageantry — prime-time interviews, gala dinners, and sober speeches before august institutions — Tehran's annual American charm offensive fell short of the hype and historic breakthroughs that marked his September 2013 trip. Even more disappointing was the fact that the rare appearance of senior Iranian officials on American soil failed where it mattered most, in catalyzing new momentum on the stalled nuclear talks.

            These dashed hopes should not overshadow what Rouhani's New York trip did accomplish: it clarified for Americans and the world that Iran's strategy is to play out the clock on the approaching deadline for securing a comprehensive deal and to wield its role in the intensifying regional turmoil as leverage in securing more favorable terms. This strategy, while perfectly rational from an Iranian perspective, is almost certain to produce a disastrous outcome for Iran, the region, and the world.
What a Difference a Year Makes
            This September was always going to suffer by comparison to 2013, when Rouhani arrived in New York for United Nations General Assembly meetings fresh off his surprising electionand brandishing a strong early mandate for diplomatic outreach on the nuclear issue and beyond. That visit was a tour de force of affirmation and celebration, with an expertly crafted crescendo of ingratiating overtures that culminated in an unprecedented telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and Rouhani during his final moments in New York.
            This time, consistent with the dire regional context and his public character throughout his long career in Iran's security bureaucracy, Rouhani bared a more censorious style and less silky rhetoric. Instead, he scolded the West for "strategic blunders" that had caused the region's many woes, and suggested that Iran's assistance against regional extremists could be had for the small price of flexibility on the nuclear issue.
            In turn, he was received by his American interlocutors with a slightly harder edge. A record is tougher to defend than the mere promise of action, and journalists' questions often become more pointed when one of their own has been targeted. Instead of the patronizingly giddy praise for the Iranians' social media savvy, this year the CEO of Twitter took a highly public shot at Rouhani, encouraging him to make the technologies available to all of his citizens. (The latter move prompted a fitting counter response by Iranians, who launched a social media campaign to press Twitter to grant Iran-based users access to account verification services.)
A Deadline Looms, But a Nuclear Deal Remains Out of Reach
            Still, the tougher tone on both sides would simply be the stuff of atmospherics had the talks on the nuclear issue made meaningful progress. With less than two months before the expiration of the already extended deadline for the nuclear diplomacy, the negotiations that took place on the sidelines of UNGA represented the last best chance to overcome the stalemate on the core concern that has divided the parties since the outset — how to constrain Tehran's capacity to enrich uranium. Unfortunately, it appears to have been an opportunity lost, largely because of Iranian obduracy on the issue of enrichment. This is hardly the only outstanding issue; in reality, so long as any piece of the deal remains in play, none of the tentative arrangements brokered on particular elements — such as the Fordow enrichment facility or the Arak heavy water plant — can be considered definitive.
            U.S. officials are allergic to any conversation that contemplates the failure to get a deal by November 24, arguing that any public contemplation of what might follow is a distraction that dilutes pressure on Tehran for quick compromise. Increasingly, this is a futile concern; the expectation that the deadline will pass without a deal is already creeping into the policy discourse, as a new article by former White House official Gary Samore forecasts.
            And in any case, the insistence on avoiding any discussion of a potential failure is quite the opposite of American intentions. For their part, during a host of public and private meetings in New York featuring Rouhani or his talented foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranians openly acknowledged the prospect that the deadline will not be met. Timing hardly seems to be a motivating factor at this point. In a breakfast with reporters, Rouhani noted that "if there [is] no final agreement, there will perhaps be another way to go." 
The Islamic Republic and the Islamic State
            In addition to the Iranians' lack of urgency on the impending deadline, another aspect of their approach to the nuclear negotiations came through loud and clear during the New York visit — namely, the linkage that Tehran sees between the nuclear deal and regional instability.
It was inevitable that the question of Iran's stance toward the violent group that has dubbed itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) would arise during the delegation's New York visit. After all, Zarif arrived only a week after President Obama addressed the nation about the threat posed by ISIS and immediately following a conference led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to formalize an international coalition against ISIS. Out of deference to Washington's regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iran was pointedly not invited to that gathering — despite the front-line role Iranian forces have already played in driving ISIS out of several Iraqi positions.
            Most of the attention paid to Rouhani's UNGA speech focused on his sanctimonious scolding of Washington and the world for the failure to pay heed to his warnings a year ago about extremism. Both Rouhani and Zarif insisted that Tehran can play a central role in combatting the rise of ISIS and other jihadist forces, and deprecated the still-evolving American strategy for its reliance on air power.
            However, the most significant aspect of their remarks on ISIS was the fairly unsubtle suggestions that "avoidance of excessive demands in the negotiations by our counterparts"could open the doors to Iranian assistance. Once again, as in so many previous iterations of the U.S.-Iranian flirtation (Iran-contra, goodwill-begets-goodwill), a quid pro quo is being dangled before Washington; for the small price of nuclear concessions, Iranian assistance against ISIS can be bought. "If our interlocutors are also equally motivated and flexible, and we can overcome the problem and reach a longstanding agreement within the time remaining," Rouhani cajoled in his UNGA speech, "then an entirely different environment will emerge for cooperation at regional and international levels, allowing for greater focus on some very important regional issues such as combating violence and extremism in the region."
UNGA Is Over, and So Is Rouhani's Honeymoon
            The attempt at linkage and the lack of urgency evident in the public remarks of Rouhani, Zarif and other Iranian officials last week suggest that Tehran is playing hardball. However, it is a dangerous bluff. Rouhani's government has begun to rehabilitate Iran's economy and restore some confidence among its people that the country is no longer headed toward a precipice; the rise of ISIS has reinforced its sense of regional primacy.
            However, this renewed sense of swagger should not be mistaken for actual leverage.Tehran has infinitely more to lose from the failure to secure a deal. Washington does not want to contemplate alternatives to diplomacy, and in the current chaotic environment, Obama is even less likely to move quickly toward a military solution to the nuclear impasse than ever before.
            Still, sanctions remain a devastating tool, and one that is only too tempting for a recalcitrant American Congress. Despite strains on the sanctions regime as a result of Ukraine and new threats to energy supplies, international adherence remains robust, simply because existing measures force the world to choose between doing business with Tehran and doing business in the United States. That cost-benefit assessment for most international firms won't change until the legal framework does — in other words, until there is a comprehensive deal. In the absence of one, the tightening of sanctions, and the corresponding toll on ordinary Iranians, is almost an inevitability.
            As for the campaign against ISIS, it would be a grave mistake to barter nuclear concession for an Iranian assist in that battle. That's not to disregard Tehran's formidable capabilities and its existing influence among crucial constituencies in both Iraq and Syria. However, the logistical and institutional barriers to direct bilateral cooperation on both sides remain steep, and ultimately Iran's interests — as identified by its leadership — will govern its campaign there, not some spurious tradeoffs in the nuclear talks.
            Iranian negotiators, like their American counterparts, have domestic politics to consider, particularly the hardliners who will resent every hint of compromise from revolutionary dogma. From this corner, the president's performance in New York mostly drew plaudits at home, with one notable exception — his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government remains a much cherished bête noire for Iranian hardliners. (Rouhani has since denounced Cameron for implying that Tehran was "part of the problem" in Iraq and Syria.)
But a deal that satisfies the maximalist imperatives of hardliners in either capital is not a viable construct. The U.S. explicitly conceded this last November, and President Obama himself made a strenuous case for the interim deal and its hard-fought compromise of continuing Iranian enrichment over howls of opposition from Congress and U.S. regional allies. He has largely won the point; the demand for zero enrichment has mostly faded from the debate.
            Obama's political courage has not yet been matched in Tehran. Iran's leadership remains intent on  retaining its core nuclear infrastructure, and there is no political force willing or capable of pushing back publicly against the hardliners' wildly inflated definition of Iran's interests and requirements. Ironically, for much of the eight years that preceded his election to the presidency, Rouhani was that voice of reason, constantly prodding his predecessor to avoid boxing Iran into a corner.
            Today, as a president who lacks ultimate authority over nuclear policy and most other sensitive matters, Rouhani is trying to box Washington into a false choice between accepting Iran's unacceptable terms or seeking an even less attractive alternative to diplomacy. The Obama administration and its partners in the P5+1 should resist this ruse. The world cannot want a deal more than Tehran does, and we cannot pay any price to get one. In the end, the costs of continuing the impasse are felt hardest by the Iranian people, at least those who were not present at Rouhani's lavish closing reception at the New York luxury restaurant Cipriani last week.
Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of “Iran’s Long Reach” (2008). Follow her on Twitter @MaloneySuzanne
Click here for the original posting on Iran@Brookings.  


Iran's Dinner Diplomacy

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

           Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, did not shake hands with Barack Obama at the United Nations this week, a year after their celebrated cell-phone chat. The two men didn’t even pass each other in the hallway. But Rouhani did give a quiet dinner at his hotel on Tuesday for twenty former American officials—including a secretary of state, three national-security advisers, and a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—from all six Administrations since the 1979 revolution.

Click here for the full article.

Journalists Criticize Rouhani in Letter

            In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, 135 journalists held his administration accountable for not fulfilling his campaign promise to create a more secure working environment for the media. The signers wrote that “it is unethical, unprofessional and insulting to deny the fact that, today, many journalists remain in prison in Iran for doing their jobs.”
            The group wrote the letter in reaction to Rouhani’s response to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who inquired about the detention of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian in a recent interview. “I do not believe that an individual would be detained or put in prison for being a journalist,” the president told Amanpour. Rezaian, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, and his Iranian wife Yeganeh Salehi, a correspondent for the Emirates-based paper The National, were detained in late July. Salehi was released on bail during the first week of October but Rezaian remains in prison. The following is a translation of the letter by Iran Wire’s Maziar Bahari.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran
Your Excellency, When you came to power in June 2013, you promised that you would create a more secure working environment for journalists and the media in our country.
Once again, in February 2014, you reminded the citizens of Iran of your election promises, stating that journalists should be entitled to greater security while doing their jobs. You said that shutting down a newspaper is not the right way to warn those who may have infringed on the law. 
We, the undersigned, expected you to take serious and practical measures to fulfill your promises.
Yet more than a year after resuming office, the demands and expectations of journalists have not been realized. In fact, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, you denied that there was anyone in jail in Iran for their work as a journalist.
You were once critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration and its habit of concealing and denying the truth. Your recent denial that a problem even exists echoes this sentiment, and remind us of its impact.
We, the undersigned journalists, believe that it is unethical, unprofessional and insulting to deny the fact that, today, many journalists remain in prison in Iran for doing their jobs. In fact, a number of journalists have been imprisoned during your presidency.
In our country, security agents regularly imprison journalists, denying them their basic rights simply for carrying out their duty: to inform the public. As the head of the executive branch, and as the second highest official of the land, whose responsibility includes supervising the execution of the constitution by different branches of the government, it is your duty to improve the situation of Iranian journalists.
At the very least, we expect you to correct your false statement concerning imprisoned journalists in Iran. But we hope for more, and we ask you to fulfill your promises to create a more secure environment for journalists in our country.
- Aida Ghajar
-  Ahmad Rafat
- Alieh Motalebzadeh
- Ali Asghar Ramezanpour
- Ali Shirazi
- Ali Mazrouei
- Alireza Latifian
- Amirhossein Mossala
- Arash Bahmani
- Arash Ashourinia
- Arash Azizi
- Behdad Bordbar
- Behrouz Samadbeygi
- Bijan Farhoudi
- Darioush Memar
- Delbar Tavakoli
- Ehsan Mehrabi
- Elnaz Mohammadi
- Ershad Alijani
- Fatemeh Jamalpour
- Farshad Ghorbanpour
- Fereshte Ghazi
- Farshid Faryabi
- Farahmand Alipour
- Fariborz Soroush
- Farid Haeinejad
- Farideh Ghaeb
- Firouzeh Ramezanzadeh
- Hamid Eslami
- Hamidreza Ebrahimzadeh
- Hanif Mazrouei
- Homayoun Kheiri
- Hossein Alavi
- Javad Heidarian
- Isa Saharkhiz
- Kamyar Behrang
- Kaveh Ghoreishi
- Khatereh Vatankhah
- Ladan Salami
- Lida Ayaz
- Lida Hosseininejad
- Leila Sa'adati
- Leili Nikounazar
- Maziar Bahari
- Maziar Khosravi
- Mana Neyestani
- Mani Tehrani
- Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
- Mojtaba Najafi
- Majid Saeedi
- Mohammad Aghazadeh
- Mohammad Tangestani
- Mohammad Hossein Nejati
- Mohammad Rahbar
- Mohammad Ghadamali
- Mohammad Kassaeizadeh
- Mohammadreza Nassababdollahi
- Mahmoud Farjami
- Morteza Kazemian
- Marjan Tabatabaei
- Maryam Amiri
- Maryam Jafari
- Maryam Shahsamandi
- Maryam Majd
- Mazdak Alinazari
- Masoud Behnoud
- Masoud Safiri
- Masoud Kazemi
- Masoud Lavasani
- Mostafa Khalaji
- Maliheh Mohammadi
- Mansoureh Farahani
- Mahdi Tajik
- Mehdi Jami
- Mehdi Ghadimi
- Mehdi Mahmoudian
- Mehdi Vazirbani
- Mehdi Mohseni
- Mehran Faraji
- Mehraveh Kharazmi
- Mehrad Abolghassemi
- Mehrdad Hojati
- Mehrdad Mashayekhi
- Mitra Khalatbari
- Meisam Youssefi
- Milad Beheshti
- Minou Momeni
- Nazanin Kazemi
- Nazanin Matin'nia
- Nasrin Zahiri
- Naeimeh Doustdar
- Negin Behkam
- Noushabeh Amiri
- Noushin Pirouz
- Nikahang Kowsar
- Nima Dehghani
- Niousha Saremi
- Omid Montazeri
- Parvaneh Vahidmanesh
- Panah Farhadbahman
- Pourya Souri
- Reza Ansarirad
- Reza Haghighatnejad
- Reza Rafiei
- Reza Shokrollahi
- Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi
- Roya Maleki
- Reihaneh Mazaheri
- Sara Damavandan
- Saghi Laghaei
- Sam Mahmoudi Sarabi
- Sanaz Ghazizadeh
- Sepideh Behkam
- Sahar Bayati
- Soroush Farhadian
- Saeid Shams
- Saeideh Amin
- Soulmaz Eikder
- Siamak Ghaderi
- Seyyed Mojtaba Vahedi
- Sina Shahbaba
- Shabnam Shabani
- Shahram Rafizadeh
- Shahrzad Hemati
- Shohreh Asemi
- Shirzad Abdollahi
- Shirin Famili
- Shima Shahrabi
- Saba Sherdoust
- Sadra Mohaghegh
- Tahereh Rahimi
- Tara Bonyad
- Taraneh Baniyaghoub
- Touka Neyestani
- Youssef Azizi Banitorof
Click here for the letter in Farsi. 

Carter on Hostage Crisis 34 Years Later

            On October 1, former President Jimmy Carter told NBC that he could have been re-elected if he had taken military action against Iran or been able to rescue the American hostages in 1980. "I think I made the right decision in retrospect [to not attack Iran], but it was not easy at the time," he said.
In October 1979, Carter reluctantly allowed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, then ill with lymphoma, to seek medical treatment in the United States. Mobs of students angry with Washington took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran November 4 and took the 52 American occupants hostage.
On the night of April 24-25, the United States mounted a complex rescue mission that ended in failure. A massive dust cloud caused mechanical problems in the helicopters involved and the mission was aborted. But on the way back, one helicopter clipped the wing of a transport aircraft and the both aircraft burst into flames, killing eight servicemen. Carter announced the failure in the morning on the radio, which was a blow to his administration.
The hostages were only freed 444 days after the embassy takeover, just as Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in January 1981. The revolutionary regime did not want to return the American hostages to the same president who gave sanctuary to the shah.
The following are excerpts from Carter’s recent interview with CNBC on the hostage crisis.

            I think I would have been re-elected easily if I had been able to rescue our hostages from the Iranians. And everybody asks me what would do more, I would say I would send one more helicopter because if I had one more helicopter we could have brought out not only the 52 hostages, but also brought out the rescue team, and when that failed, then I think that was the main factor that brought about my failure to be re-elected. So that's one thing I would change.
            Um, well I could've been re-elected if I'd taken military action against Iran, shown that I was strong and resolute and, um, manly and so forth. But, er, I think if I, I could have wiped Iran off the map with the weapons that we had, but in the process a lot of innocent people would have been killed, probably including the hostages and so I stood up against all that, er, all that advice, and then eventually my prayers were answered and every hostage came home safe and free. And so I think I made the right decision in retrospect, but it was not easy at the time (laughs).

Congress Warns Kerry on Nuclear Program

            On October 1, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Member, along with 352 other House Members—including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer—sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing serious concerns about Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The following is the full text of the letter.

Dear Mr. Secretary:
As the United States prepares for the resumption of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran to achieve a comprehensive nuclear agreement, we remain deeply concerned with Iran’s refusal to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.  As you know, the IAEA has sought information on the “potential military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program, in particular information about Iran’s extensive research and development of a nuclear explosive device. 
For several years, the IAEA has attempted to work with Iran to resolve this central issue, but Tehran has refused.  Last November, the IAEA and Iran concluded a “Framework for Cooperation” in which Iran agreed to work with the IAEA, including by providing satisfactory information in response to IAEA inquiries within mutually agreed deadlines.  Nevertheless, in its September 5, 2014 report, the IAEA stated that Iran had failed to meet its latest deadline, even as it continued to demolish structures and construct others at the Parchin military base, where clandestine nuclear-related activities have reportedly taken place.
We believe that Iran’s willingness to fully reveal all aspects of its nuclear program is a fundamental test of Iran’s intention to uphold a comprehensive agreement.  As you wrote in the Washington Post earlier this summer, if Iran’s nuclear program is truly peaceful, “it’s not a hard proposition to prove.” The only reasonable conclusion for its stonewalling of international investigators is that Tehran does indeed have much to hide.
We are concerned that an agreement that accepts Iran’s lack of transparency on this key issue would set the dangerous precedent that certain facilities and aspects of Iran’s nuclear program can be declared off limits by Tehran, resulting in additional wide-ranging restrictions on IAEA inspectors, and making effective verification virtually impossible.
A resolution of this issue is also essential to establishing a baseline regarding the status of the Iranian nuclear program.  Accurate predictions of the period of time needed by Iran to assemble a weapon and assessments of Iran’s compliance cannot be made without highly reliable information obtained from an unrestricted inspection and verification regime.  Such a baseline is also critical to developing more precise estimates on the time it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability without detection. 
We would like to achieve a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.  As negotiations resume, we urge you to carefully monitor Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA’s inquiry.  As you have written, there is a “discrepancy…between Iran’s professed intent with respect to its nuclear program and the actual content of that program to date.”  We agree with your assessment that “these issues cannot be dismissed; they must be addressed by the Iranians if a comprehensive solution is to be reached.”  An agreement that effectively prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability demands transparency on the extensive research and development work that Iran has undertaken in the past.
Click here for a signed copy of the letter.  
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