Iran’s Post-Election Nuclear Prospects

by Peter Jenkins

So many thoughtful analyses of the significance of Dr. Hassan Rouhani’s election are already in circulation that part of me thinks I ought to spare LobeLog readers one more. As a compromise, I will limit my focus to the election’s implications for a peaceful resolution of the dispute that has preoccupied me for the last ten years: the nuclear dispute.

First, unless it gets tarnished — and we must hope that the inevitable smear campaigns underestimate the good sense of the average member of the public — Rouhani’s image as a man of wisdom and moderation will make it easier for Western leaders to contemplate a nuclear deal.

Contrast Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose appearance and rhetoric created a deplorable impression in the West. He became toxic. Image-conscious Western politicians could not run the risk of doing a nuclear deal that might be seen by the public, unaware of Iran’s power-sharing complexities, as entailing trust in Ahmadinejad.

Jack Straw, who as British Foreign Secretary met Rouhani on several occasions, described the president-elect in the Daily Telegraph as a tough but pragmatic defender of Iranian interests, potentially “a huge relief to do business with”. Straw continues to see the deal he did with Rouhani in October 2003 as good for Britain and Europe. He would reject as baseless the claim that Rouhani duped his European counterparts (as would I, for what that is worth!).

Lord Lamont, another British ex-Cabinet Minister, writing in The Times on 18 June, reminded readers of Margaret Thatcher’s prescient declaration that Mikhail Gorbachev was a man “with whom we can do business”. Lord Lamont’s suggestion that the same can be said of Rouhani may not be entirely welcome in Tehran where Gorbachev is seen as responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. But many Times readers will find the comparison apt and reassuring.

Of course, it would be a big mistake to assume that because Rouhani is pragmatic and moderate, he will also be a soft touch. He won’t be. His advent will not change the fundamentals of the Iranian position on the nuclear issue.

Whoever is appointed chief nuclear negotiator (an early opportunity for Rouhani to demonstrate his wisdom) will be looking for guarantees that the West can accept ongoing Iranian production of low-enriched uranium for civil purposes under state-of-the-art safeguards, and that all nuclear-related sanctions will be eliminated once it has been verified that there are no undeclared nuclear activities or material in Iran.

Second, Rouhani’s image will make it harder for Israel’s Prime Minister and his Israeli and US acolytes to scare-monger. Back in 2005, the “mad mullah” campaign was losing credibility. Ahmadinejad’s arrival at the head of the Iranian state was a god-send. It was easy to convince the public that such a president might be capable of even the most suicidal of follies.

The scare-mongering will not cease. Already some are suggesting that Rouhani’s election in no way diminishes the (imagined) nuclear threat from Iran. Others are portraying Rouhani as guilty by association with terrorist acts, or the repression of student protests in 1999, and, by implication, capable of anything. But one can sense that for these people, events have taken a discomforting turn. A severe test of their skills as practitioners of the black art of propaganda lies ahead.

Third, Iranian reactions to Western diplomacy are likely to be more coherent and far-sighted than over the last eight years. In 2005, Ahmadinejad’s first administration rejected EU nuclear proposals out-of-hand instead of taking them as a basis for negotiation. In 2007 and 2009, Iranian infighting scuppered opportunities for a confidence-building stop-gap agreement.

Of course political fissures may open up under Rouhani. But that will happen, if at all, against the run of form, because what we hear suggests that Rouhani is on good terms with Iran’s supreme authority and with the main political currents.

Fourth, Rouhani may be able to soften Saudi opposition to Iran possessing uranium enrichment plants. Saudi-Iranian relations have not always been as strained as under Ahmadinejad, especially since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria. Under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, when Rouhani was serving as National Security Council secretary, relations recovered from post-revolution lows. Both sides know they are condemned by geography to co-exist.

During a press conference on 17 June, Rouhani (who has good Arabic) referred to Saudi Arabia as a “brother country”, and recalled his successful negotiation of a security agreement in the late 90s. Prince Turki bin Faisal recently told an interviewer from Der Spiegel that it would be disastrous for Saudi Arabia if Israel or the US were to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, and expressed interest in regional nuclear confidence-building. Israeli opposition will stymie his hope for a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons. But, like the members of Euratom in the 1950s, the Gulf states, Iran and Turkey could agree on a mutual nuclear-monitoring arrangement or a sub-regional weapons-free zone.

The Iranian nuclear issue is like the stables of King Augeas. It is littered with evil-smelling heaps of distrust, suspicion, fear and resentment. For the last eight years, Ahmadinejad has given Western leaders an excuse to leave their shovels in the tool-shed. Now, though, they have as good an opportunity to emulate Hercules as they are ever likely to get…

Photo Credit: Mona Hoobehfekr

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.