by Jim Lobe
Exactly three weeks ago, a confident Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s top Iran policy-maker for most of his first term, made the following assessments and predictions in an op-ed entitled, ironically, “Don’t Discount the Iranian Election:”
So now Ayatollah Khamenei has decided not to leave anything to chance. …If there had been any hope that Iran’s presidential election might offer a pathway to different policy approaches on dealing with the United States, he has now made it clear that will not be the case. His action should be seen for what it is: a desire to prevent greater liberalization internally and accommodation externally.”
…Clearly, the Supreme Leader wanted to avoid the kind of excitement that Rafsanjani would have stirred up had he continued making public statements, as he has over the last two years, about Iran’s need to fix the economy and reduce Iran’s isolation internationally (a theme he has emphasized in recent years). But the exclusion of Rafsanjani from the election is also an important signal to anyone concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. If the Supreme Leader had been interested in doing a deal with the West on the Iranian nuclear program, he would have wanted [former President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani to be president.
I say that …because if the Supreme Leader were interested in an agreement, he would probably want to create an image of broad acceptability of it in advance. Rather than having only his fingerprints on it, he would want to widen the circle of decision-making to share the responsibility. And he would set the stage by having someone like Rafsanjani lead a group that would make the case for reaching an understanding. Rafsanjani’s pedigree as Khomeini associate and former president, with ties to the Revolutionary Guard and to the elite more generally, would all argue for him to play this role.
…(T)he fact that the Iranian media is lavishing attention on [Saeed] Jalili certainly suggests that he is Khamenei’s preference, even though he has the thinnest credentials of the lot.
If Jalili does end up becoming the Iranian president, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that the Supreme Leader has little interest in reaching an understanding with the United States on the Iranian nuclear program.”
Three weeks later, we know not only that Jalili did not win the election, but that the candidate backed with enthusiasm by both Rafsanjani and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami — Hassan Rouhani — did. Moreover, during his campaign, Rouhani did exactly what, in Ross’s assessment, made Rafsanjani’s candidacy unacceptable to Ali Khamenei: he spoke “about Iran’s need to fix the economy and reduce Iran’s isolation internationally…” — themes which he repeated in his 90-minute post-election press conference. In addition, Rouhani — given his 15 years on the Supreme National Security Council — appears to be an excellent vehicle for creating “an image of broad acceptability of [an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program] in advance” if Khamenei were interested in such an accord. And, although he isn’t a former president like Rafsanjani, Rouhani’s reputed ability to bridge differences between conservatives, pragmatists and reformists would help Khamenei “widen the circle of decision-making to share the responsibility” of a deal. He would also be well placed to “lead a group that would make the case for reaching an understanding.”
Thus, if we assume, as Ross did three weeks ago, that Khamenei leaves nothing to chance and has the power to do so — a very questionable assumption among actual Iran experts (see here and here for examples) — then we might also see Jalili’s defeat and Rouhani’s surprise victory on what was essentially Rafsanjani’s platform as clear signals that Khamenei is indeed “interested in doing a deal on the Iranian nuclear program.” The only missing element in this scenario was Rafsanjani who, as noted above, strongly backed Rouhani and helped rally the centrists and reformists behind him. In light of Ross’s previous assessments regarding how the supreme leader signals his intentions on nuclear negotiations, would it be unreasonable to expect that Ross would not only be somewhat humbler with respect to his understanding of Iranian politics, but also rather hopeful about prospects for a real deal?
On the question of humility, the answer is not really, at least judging by his latest analysis, entitled “Talk to Iran’s New President. Warily.” Ross doesn’t even mention Jalili, Khamenei’s previously presumed chosen one. And while Ross seems genuinely puzzled by why Khamenei “allowed Mr. Rowhani to win the election,” particularly in light of the fact that the president-elect had “run against current [Khamenei-approved] Iranian policies,” he still sees the supreme leader as all-powerful, implying that Rouhani would not have won had Khamenei not approved of his victory.
As to the meaning of Khamenei’s permitting Rouhani to win, Ross floats four possible options, none of which, however, admits the possibility that Khamenei is prepared “to do a deal” acceptable to the West (a possibility for which Ross, just three weeks before, believed could have been signaled by the Guardian Council’s approval of Rafsanjani’s candidacy). He does entertain the possibility that Rouhani gained Khamenei’s approval for reasons related to the nuclear issue, but strictly for tactical purposes — not to reach a final accord that would preclude Iran’s attaining “breakout capability” (as would presumably have been possible if Rafsanjani had won the presidency):
He [Khamenei] believes that Mr. Rowhani, a president with a moderate face, might be able to seek an open-ended agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that would reduce tensions and ease sanctions now, while leaving Iran room for development of nuclear weapons at some point in the future.
He believes that Mr. Rowhani might be able to start talks that would simply serve as a cover while Iran continued its nuclear program.
Ross, who has been arguing for several months now that Washington needs to drop its approach of seeking incremental confidence-building accords with Iran in favor of making a final ultimatum-like offer (backed up by ever-tougher sanctions and ever-more credible threats of military action) that would permit Tehran to enrich uranium up to five percent (subject to the strictest possible international oversight in exchange for a gradual easing of sanctions), goes on to reject any let-up in pressure on Tehran.
Even if he were given the power to negotiate, Mr. Rowhani would have to produce a deal the supreme leader would accept. So it is far too early to consider backing off sanctions as a gesture to Mr. Rowhani.
We should, instead, keep in mind that the outside world’s pressure on Iran to change course on its nuclear program may well have produced his election. So it would be foolish to think that lifting the pressure now would improve the chances that he would be allowed to offer us what we need: an agreement, or credible Iranian steps toward one, under which Iran would comply with its international obligations on the nuclear issue.”[Emphasis added.]
Now, I, for one, find this reasoning difficult to understand. Ross may be right that external pressure was responsible for Rouhani’s election, but I suspect that it was a good deal more complicated than that, and, in any event, one of the last people I would seek out for an explanation as to why Rouhani won would be Ross, given his assessments of Iranian politics just three weeks ago. But to assert that easing pressure on Iran once Rouhani takes office (as a goodwill gesture) would somehow reduce the chances that Rouhani would be allowed to make concessions on the nuclear issue just doesn’t make much sense, if, for no other reason, virtually all Iran experts agree that Khamenei (and presumably hard-liners in and around his office) don’t believe Washington really wants an agreement because its ultimate goal is regime change. (Just today, Khamenei, while insisting that “resolving the nuclear issue would be simple” if hostile powers put aside their stubbornness, noted, “Of course, the enemies say in their words and letters that they do not want to change the regime, but their approaches are contrary to these words.”) If Khamenei is to be persuaded otherwise, Washington should work to bolster Rouhani and the forces that supported him in the election.
Indeed, most Iran specialists whose work I read argue that Rouhani’s election has really put the “ball in President Obama’s court”, as the International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez wrote this week. They say that the response should not only be goodwill gestures, such as a congratulatory letter on his inauguration, but far more generous offers than what has been put on the table to date. Vali Nasr, for example, made the point last week when he argued that Rouhani “will likely wait for a signal of American willingness to make serious concessions before he risks compromise.”
For the past eight years, U.S. policy has relied on pressure — threats of war and international economic sanctions — rather than incentives to change Iran’s calculus. Continuing with that approach will be counterproductive. It will not provide Rowhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks, and it could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue.
…There is now both the opportunity and the expectation that Washington will adopt a new approach to strengthen reformists and give Rowhani the opening that he needs if he is to successfully argue the case for a deal with the P5+1.”
Paul Pillar made a similar point in the National Interest last week:
Rouhani’s election presents the United States and its partners with a test — of our intentions and seriousness about reaching an agreement. Failure of the test will confirm suspicions in Tehran that we do not want a deal and instead are stringing along negotiations while waiting for the sanctions to wreak more damage. …Passage of the test …means not making any proposal an ultimatum that is coupled with threats of military force, which only feed Iranian suspicions that for the West the negotiations are a box-checking prelude to war and regime change.”
“The Iranian electorate has in effect said to the United States and its Western partners, “We’ve done all we can. Among the options that the Guardian Council gave us, we have chosen the one that offers to get us closest to accommodation, agreement and understanding with the West. Your move, America.”
And, in contrast to Ross, who believes that time is fast running out and the “multilateral step-by-step approach …has outlived its usefulness,” the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney argued in Foreign Affairs that
To overcome the deep-seated (and not entirely unjustified) paranoia of its ultimate decision-maker, the United States will need to be patient. It will need to understand, for example, that Rouhani will need to demonstrate to Iranians that he can produce tangible rewards for diplomatic overtures. That means that Washington should be prepared to offer significant sanctions relief in exchange for any concessions on the nuclear issue. Washington will also have to understand that Rouhani may face real constraints in seeking to solve the nuclear dispute without exacerbating the mistrust of hard-liners.
In spite of this advice, things are moving in the opposite direction. On July 1, tough new sanctions to which Obama has already committed himself will take effect. Among other provisions, they will penalise companies that deal in rials or with Iran’s automotive sector. The Republican-led House is expected to pass legislation by the end of next month (that is, on the eve of Rouhani’s inauguration) that would sharply curb or eliminate the president’s authority to waive sanctions on countries and companies doing any business with Iran, thus imposing a virtual trade embargo on Iran. Other sanctions measures, including an anticipated effort by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham to get an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution passed by the Senate after the August recess, are lined up.
It would be good to learn what Ross, who is co-chairing the new Iran task force of the ultra-hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, thinks of these new and pending forms of pressure and whether they are likely to improve the chances that Rouhani will be able to deliver a deal.