Washington, DC - Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani has declared his intention to follow "the path of moderation" in foreign affairs, posing a sharp dilemma for US President Barack Obama.
The surprise election victory this June by the pragmatic cleric, who was inaugurated as president on Sunday, has sparked renewed debate over the US administration's sanctions-focused policy for dealing with Tehran's nuclear programme.
Since Rouhani's election, the Obama administration has eased restrictions on the sale of medical supplies and agricultural products to Iran. But it has received conflicting policy advice from different quarters in Washington on whether to escalate sanctions or relaunch efforts at diplomacy.
A number of former senior officials, including former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering, have urged Obama to take advantage of what they see as a pragmatic turn in Tehran to pursue a diplomatic compromise with Iran. But last week's tightening of sanctions through the "Iran Nuclear Prevention Act" passed by the US House of Representatives was a sharp rebuttal of calls for renewed engagement.
The Obama administration's own ambivalence was captured in a statement by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf, expressing "some concerns over the specific contents of the legislation" while reiterating that "the administration is clearly committed to enforcing a comprehensive set of sanctions against the Iranian government" and to "continue working with Congress to determine the best way to implement potential further sanctions".
The mixed messages out of Washington may reflect a White House aware both that tougher sanctions could cloud prospects for any diplomatic "reset" with Iran, and that battling the pro-sanctions consensus on Capitol Hill carries a political cost at home. "However sound may be the administration's private calculations regarding what helps or hurts negotiations, it evidently believes it cannot afford to be subject to public charges of being soft on Iran," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst.
|Iran's Rouhani faces major challenges
Pillar believes the administration could also be anticipating "the difficult task of selling to the Congress an agreement with Tehran - which necessarily would involve significant relief from sanctions". This would be "all the more difficult if the administration cannot say that it had been just as tough toward Iran as anyone else had been".
The 400-20 vote for the Iran Nuclear Prevention Act, strongly endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and aimed at further limiting Iran's already diminished oil revenues, was hailed by congressional hawks and by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader has rejected calls for renewed US engagement with Tehran, and has demanded a ratcheting up of sanctions and other forms of pressure to stop Iran's development of nuclear infrastructure that would put within its reach the capability of building a bomb.
The US believes Iran has not taken a decision to build nuclear weapons, but that it is steadily acquiring the technological wherewithal to do so. Still, even within Congress, the message is mixed. A bipartisan letter circulated in the House of Representatives this July by Congressmen David Price and Charles Dent urging President Obama to "utilise all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks", including a "potential relaxation" of sanctions in response to verifiable concessions from Iran, received a remarkable 131 signatures.
That most of those signatories then voted for another round of sanctions on Iran suggests that Congress is "frustrated by the lack of progress with the P5+1 talks", said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. No date is currently set for the resumption of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group, which comprises Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US. Iran has not formally responded to a confidence-building proposal presented by the international powers during negotiations in February in Almaty, Kazakhstan, with Iran claiming the P5+1 had made huge demands while offering little in return.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly told the Obama administration in early July that Iran was considering direct talks with the United States. While Iran's Supreme Leader reiterated his mistrust of the US on July 21, he has not ruled out such talks.
"The push for tougher sanctions is driven by the belief that they will halt Iran's nuclear programme," Kimball said. "Sanctions have affected Iran's economy and its risk-benefit calculations, but they will not by themselves halt Iran's nuclear programme. It is fantasy to believe otherwise."
Meanwhile, Rouhani appears to be trying to improve the diplomatic atmosphere following often provocative rhetoric from his predecessor, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reports from Tehran late last week suggested that the new president's pick for foreign minister will be Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former ambassador to the United Nations, and who is viewed as a bridge-builder by many in Washington who have interacted with him.
Rouhani was nicknamed "the diplomatic sheikh" while serving as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-05, and promised on the campaign trail that as president he would embrace moderation in foreign policy and greater international engagement.
Those in the West who want talks both to take place and to succeed with Iran should be distressed by calls for increased pressures on Iran, and especially more sanctions.
"Our main policy will be to have constructive interaction with the world," said Rouhani during his first press conference as president-elect. His chatty Twitter account, which is off-limits to users inside Iran, also appears as a stark contrast to the more austere social media offerings of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Last Friday, for example, Rouhani retweeted Buzzfeed's "13 Tweets Showing How #Iran's New #President Is Different", and tweeted his approval of the July pro-diplomacy letter circulated in the House of Representatives.
Yet although he may be able to undo the negative atmosphere created by his predecessor in addressing Western powers, Rouhani faces a more complex challenge when it comes to substantive negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme.
"As already evidenced by the names of his potential cabinet picks, the new negotiating team will be experienced, well-versed in foreign policy and ready to negotiate," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. "But there will be naysayers in Iran, who - like their counterparts in the US - will say talks are useless as the US is only interested in monologue, not dialogue."
Farhi believes such arguments will not prevent a genuine diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear issue. But should engagement fail, they will be repeated as a "told-you-so" rationale for a different policy course. Rouhani will certainly find the task of selling renewed diplomatic outreach more challenging if sanctions are bolstered, as Tehran wants to avoid being seen as making concessions in the face of threats and pressure.
Push for more sanctions
And even before the new House sanctions become law, their supporters on Capitol Hill have made clear they intend to press for more. "Iran may have a new president, but its march toward a nuclear programme continues," said Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who sponsored the bill. "The economic and political pressure on Tehran must be ratcheted up."
Some in Washington are sceptical, however, that further sanctions pressure will yield a positive result. "Those in the West who want talks both to take place and to succeed with Iran should be distressed by calls for increased pressures on Iran, and especially more sanctions," said Robert E Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO and National Security Council staffer. "This is a very dangerous path, because one never knows when the straw will break the camel's back."
Hunter urged Obama to test the possibility of a new opening with Rouhani and to "push back" against those seeking to limit the potential for diplomacy.
The converse is equally true, he added. Achieving his stated goal of finding a diplomatic route out of the impasse will require Rouhani, too, to fight some tough domestic political battles against more hard-line voices.