Two Iran experts assessed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to the United Nations General Assembly and its implications for improving relations between the United States and Iran.
On October 2, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center held a meeting, “An Assessment of Rouhani’s Visit to New York: Real Diplomacy or Failed Expectations?” with Robin Wright, Wilson Center-USIP Distinguished Scholar, and Meir Javedanfar, Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and Iranian Politics Lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Michael Van Dusen, Executive Vice President and COO of the Woodrow Wilson Center moderated the event.
Wright offered several bottom lines based on two meetings she attended with President Rouhani and one with Foreign Minister Zarif in New York during the UN General Assembly.
First, for the first time in 34 years, the United States and Iran are both committed – at the same time – to finding a speedy resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. It marks the first of many stages in a process that has taken longer than repairing relations with China after its revolution or Vietnam after the war.
Second, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backs the effort, reflected in his speech calling for “heroic flexibility,” but he remains skeptical about long-term U.S. intentions partly because of past efforts in the 1980s and again in 2003.
Third, the outline of a deal is taking shape. It includes tough international inspections, limiting the number of centrifuges, and a cap on the stockpile of enriched uranium, answering all questions about past operations. However, Iran will not give up the right to enrichment or closing the Fordo enrichment site, and it wants all sanctions lifted that have been imposed related to the nuclear file since 2008. The goal is to wrap everything up in a year, although the Iranians were surprised and pleased that Secretary of State Kerry suggested a shorter time-frame.
Both sides hope that the October 15-16 nuclear talks in Geneva will produce a framework for a final deal, with agreement on the first steps by both sides. But the reality is that both sides are hoping for most of the deal to be set by next spring, after which patience may begin wearing thin.
Fourth, the reasons for action now reflect a confluence of factors, including sanctions and a mismanaged economy, demographics with some 70 percent of the population born after the revolution, the aging revolutionary leadership, and the outcome of elections, among others.
Fifth, the hardest part may not be selling a deal to each other, but for President Obama and President Rouhani to convince their own legislatures to accept the terms. Both Congress and the Majles have hardliners opposed to almost any deal that will produce agreement between Washington and Tehran.
Sixth, President Rouhani repeatedly addressed some of the issues that most inflamed international reaction against Iran during his predecessor’s eight years in power, most notably the issue of the Holocaust. Rouhani talked in several public venues about the “massacre” of Jews by the Nazis, quoting the Koran that the killing of one innocent is equivalent of killing the entire human race.
Seventh, Rouhani may prove to be the most powerful Iranian president because he is not viewed as a rival to the supreme leader (like former President Rafsanjani) and he does not represent just one sliver of the spectrum (like President Ahmadinejad among hardliners and President Khatami among reformers). He also won an overwhelming mandate in an election in which 73 percent of the electorate turned out, and he won in a six-way election in which the next highest vote count was a mere 16 percent compared to his more than 50 percent.
Javedanfar was generally optimistic about the future of U.S.-Iranian relations. He believed, however, that Rouhani’s electoral victory was a price that Iran’s “deep state”—which he defined as Supreme Leader Khamenei, his office, and the Revolutionary Guards—paid in order to stay in power during Iran’s economic turmoil. The primary reason, though, for Javedanfar’s optimism was the transfer of Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, which had stronger ties to Iran’s “deep state.” This, he believed, was a better indication of change than Rouhani’s election because typically the Supreme Leader favors negotiations and reformist rhetoric when the economic situation is dire. He explained that the Supreme Leader supports reformist political leaders until Iran’s economy improves, and then he returns to his conservative roots. Iran also has the imperative to reverse as much of its negative relations as possible as the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’as escalates in the region—the biggest source of turmoil today in the Middle East, according to Javedanfar. As for the prospect of amicable relations between Iran and the United States, he noted that a full peace between the two countries was unlikely because it would remove the “last piece of the DNA” of the 1979 Revolution from contemporary Iran. Despite these issues, both experts agree that there is hope for nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran.