Iran Diplomatic Window Opens

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

President Hassan Rouhani has put priority on the "oppressive sanctions" against Iran and expressed his government's desire to have "constructive relations" with other nations and to "reduce tensions," simultaneously advising the West to refrain from "the language of sanctions" in favor of "respect".

This message, delivered at Rouhani's August 4 inauguration, was well received, not only by the 55 foreign dignitaries, including 10 presidents, but also by the White House, whose spokesperson welcomed the new freely-elected president in the Islamic Republic. By all indications, the stage is now fully set for an auspicious chapter in nuclear negotiations, assuming that the US Congress will not torpedo it with tough action, such as new sanctions pending approval.

In preparation for the next round of nuclear negotiation, the new Rouhani administration is exploring both multilateral and bilateral venues, the latter centered on direct talks with the administration of US President Barack Obama. Unlike multilateral talks, the bilateral talks are not limited to formal negotiations and can take a variety of formal, informal, open, and secret channels, yet must be in tune with the multilateral talks in order to bear fruit.

Also, these require important prerequisites in both Tehran and Washington.

In Washington, the Obama administration must decide what to do with new Iran legislation that targets Iran's oil exports and, if enacted, would severely restrict the White House's ability to offer "gradual concessions" on sanctions in talks with Iran. Coinciding with Rouhani's inauguration was a letter to Obama signed by 76 US senators urging the president to continue the pressure on Iran as long as Iran's keeps its nuclear progress. This comes a week after the House of Representatives voted to approve the new sanctions by a solid majority. Washington policy rifts on Iran are already visible in the White House's questioning of the wisdom and timing of this legislation.

In Tehran, on the other hand, the nuclear decision-making process is in the throes of institutional changes, with President Rouhani, who has extensive background as Iran's former nuclear negotiator, opting to shift the focus away from the (inter-agency) Supreme National Security Council and into the hands of presidency and the foreign ministry.

Rouhani has made two crucial appointments that reveal this purpose; that is, a strong and experienced choice of foreign minister in Iran's former envoy to UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has intimate knowledge of the nuclear issue and, in comparison, a relatively weak choice for the head of Supreme National Security Council in the shape of the appointment of Mohammad Forouzandeh, who previously headed a foundation and is not known for his knowledge of international affairs.

By reshuffling the cards and making important institutional changes in nuclear decision-making from the outset, Rouhani has taken an important step in streamlining the decision process and centralizing it. Of course, the ultimate decisions on the nuclear issue remain the prerogative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the intricate process of decision-making below Khamenei is highly relevant to his final decisions.

The Rouhani-led changes are timely and bound to help the cause of efficiency and time-saving; ie, important factors for an administration on a rush to weaken the impact of crippling sanctions. Unfettered by inter-governmental restrictions, Rouhani's nuclear team will have a much greater "room to maneuver" at the negotiation table than was ever the case during the eight years under the administration of the new president's predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Still, these changes are not without some side-effects. The most important one pertains to getting the other branches of the government, above all the military branches, on board any nuclear decision, now that their direct input hitherto exercised through the Supreme National Security Council, will likely diminish as a result of the re-routing to the foreign ministry. In turn, this raises the prospect of fresh difficulties in reaching government consensus on the nuclear issue, inviting factionalism.

In other words, what serves the pure purpose of nuclear negotiation with the world powers does not necessarily serve the domestic purpose of "decisions by consensus". But, then again, it all depends on the nature of future nuclear negotiations and the items for compromise put on the table by both sides to unlock the stalled talks.

The two standoffs, stages of negotiation

The Iran nuclear standoff consists in fact of two key components: one, the standoff with the UN atomic agency on various safeguard and transparency issues, and the other the broader standoff with the UN Security Council, which has slapped Iran with four rounds of sanctions and whose purview extends to issues well beyond Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and includes Iran's missile program, conventional arms build up, and the like.

In order to resolve the nuclear crisis, the connection and relatively autonomy of these two facets of the crisis must be appropriately digested and relevant policies extracted. The UN resolutions call on Iran to increase its cooperation with the IAEA, to adopt the intrusive Additional Protocol and to suspend uranium-enrichment activities as a "confidence-building" measure.

Compared with his predecessor who denounced the UN resolutions on Iran as mere "torn papers", Rouhani must show a relatively greater deference to the UN decisions that are, theoretically according to the UN Charter, incumbent on the Islamic Republic. These resolutions are vague about the duration of Iran's suspension of its enrichment program and are not based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) framework, which happens to support Iran's claim of "inalienable right" to nuclear technology, including a civilian fuel cycle.

There is no doubt that the Security Council has to some extent usurped the power of an international regime and lacks full legitimacy for some of its decisions, such as trying to force Iran to adopt the "voluntary" Additional Protocol, which has yet to be adopted by dozens of nations that are UN member states. Such excesses and shortcomings of UN Security Council initiatives actually serve Iran's purpose, in rallying non-aligned nations behind it and in contesting the legality of the council's actions. Nevertheless, the issue of Iran's compliance with the council's decisions remains a thorny issue that cannot be sidestepped and ultimately requires creative solutions.

In this connection, Iran can offer a two-stage solution that moves sequentially, dealing first with the IAEA demands - such as access for inspectors to certain sites and to information - by finalizing a new modality for cooperation, which has been top of the list for IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano for some time in light of his disappointment that his May 2012 Tehran visit did not yield the final agreement he had hoped for. All this can change now with Rouhani, who can invite Amano to Tehran and participate in a signing ceremony heralding a new chapter of cooperation between Iran and the UN agency. Success could be pegged on Iran's pledge to re-adopt and ratify the Additional Protocol as part and parcel of a deal with the world powers.

In such a scenario, the outside world would have a greater confidence about Iran's peaceful nuclear intentions and Iran may even propose that IAEA inspectors a constant presence in the country to address the Western suspicions about any potential diversion to military purposes. In return, the IAEA should address Iran's concerns about its conventional military secrets, given strong evidence of IAEA inspectors acting as spies for foreign governments in the past.

A breakthrough in Iran-IAEA cooperation will without doubt have positive impact on the multilateral negotiations and produce additional incentive for the US and its Western allies to provide more meaningful sanctions relief than offered hitherto. World public opinion will then swing in Iran's direction and make it difficult for Western powers to justify their one-dimensional coercive approach toward Iran. Final negotiation would center on Iran's enrichment program, the level and scope of enrichment, a fuel swap, objective guarantees of peaceful enrichment, and a whole host of other subsidiary issues.

With the stage for a final deal set by a preliminary confidence-building compromise with the IAEA, the advantage of this phased approach is that it follows a rational, sequential path to crisis-resolution, thus proving the sensible and moderate intentions of the Rouhani government. It also depends entirely on Western governments approaching negotiations in good faith. Rouhani is well aware that good faith could be in short supply, and he criticizes this vehemently in his book on nuclear diplomacy.

The big question therefore concerns whether Western powers, led by the US, are sincere about ending this nuclear crisis. And the answer requires a response to another related question: Is the US government even capable of reaching a compromise with Iran, given the bifurcation of Iran policy between the White House and congress, which is in sharp contrast to the growing centralization of decision-making in Iran?

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) .  Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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Source: Asia Times Online

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 *These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.