War Stories

Will Iran Cut a Deal?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani doesn’t have a free hand, but Washington should take these nuclear talks as far as they can possibly go.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may not be Mikhail Gorbachev, but he may be the West’s best partner in Iran in decades.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Two things seem clear from Hassan Rouhani’s excellent adventure in New York City this week. First, something new is afoot. No Iranian president in 34 years has spoken so pragmatically or appeared so keen for a deal with the West as this one. Nor has an Iranian foreign minister met with his American counterpart, as Mohammad Javad Zarif did with John Kerry on Thursday—much less announce afterward that nuclear negotiations will begin in three weeks, with a mutually set goal of finalizing an accord within a year. If all this is a ruse, it’s a baroquely elaborate one.

But, second, this high-speed high-wire act—while potentially triumphant—is fraught with risk; it’s a bold but delicate business.

The first loud signal that Rouhani might not be a Persian replay of Mikhail Gorbachev, as his advance team had led many Westerners to hope, came when he ignored the message from the White House that during a break at the U.N. General Assembly President Obama would be open to an “encounter”—a handshake in a hallway, maybe a brief chat on the side.

No, this wasn’t a “snubbing,” as critics of both presidents snarled (or, in the case of Obama’s critics, jeered). But it probably did indicate that, when it comes to bargaining away his country’s nuclear program, Rouhani has less latitude than he’d been suggesting in his pre-trip rhetoric. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have let him give peace talks a chance, especially if they resulted in an easing of economic sanctions. But these talks would be formal, which is to say observable by aides (some of them likely Khamenei’s agents) around the table. There were to be no private whispers with an American president. (Rouhani, when he wants to, speaks fluent English.) Update: To drive home the point that no diss was intended and that the future looks cautiously bright, Obama called a press conference Friday afternoon to announce that he and Rouhani had just spoken on the phone, the first verbal contact between an American and Iranian president since 1979.

It’s impossible for an outsider to say how tight the leash is, but Khamenei’s position is not ceremonial. This is where comparisons to Gorbachev have their limits. Gorbachev was chairman of the Supreme Soviet and general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Even assuming that Rouhani is every bit the reformer that Western optimists hope, he still has to deal with Khamenei and the powerful entities that do his bidding, notably the Quds special forces and the Revolutionary Guards. It would be as if Gorbachev had been head of state but some wily Stalinist had been chief of the party—and the party had control of the most crucial assets.

This doesn’t mean that Rouhani and Zarif are on a futile quest. But it does mean that their quest has internal doubters (even more so than Obama and Kerry) and, probably, that they need tangible results for their troubles—i.e., that they need to bring home substantial benefits in exchange for cutting back on their nuclear ambitions.

And that’s where things get delicate, on both sides of the table. Rouhani and Zarif have both said this week that, at this stage, the U.S.-Iranian dialogue should be limited to talks about Iran’s nuclear program. An achievement in that realm could lead to discussions on other issues—one might imagine they could include regional stability, Israel, and counterterrorism—but that’s for later. The problem is that talking about Iran’s nuclear program inevitably raises—it requires talking about—those other issues, and those issues are what make U.S.-Iranian relations so tense.

In exchange for cutting back on their nuclear program, the Iranians will certainly demand, at the very least, a drastic easing—perhaps a lifting—of Western sanctions, which have so crippled Iran’s economy. But who takes the first step, and how big should that step and each subsequent step be? How does this process go forward in a way that builds trust, not suspicion? President Obama can lift some of the sanctions, but some of them can only be lifted by Congress. Many in Congress don’t want to solve Iran’s nuclear problem through diplomacy. First, they don’t trust Iran (not without reason). Second, they want “regime change” in Iran, and they believe (correctly) that an arms-control accord—even, or especially, one that thwarts any nuclear ambitions the regime might have—would legitimize and thus perpetuate the regime. Third, they don’t want to hand a historic foreign policy triumph to Obama.

There is a more basic question, quite apart from the link to sanctions: How much of their nuclear program do the Iranians have to cut to get a deal? Again, some in Congress—and in the Israeli government—won’t be satisfied until Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium. They hold this view, knowing that Iran will never agree to do so. Everyone understands that any deal would have to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium to some degree. It’s a matter of national pride across all segments of Iran. (Even if the mullahs were ousted tomorrow and a regime of secular liberals took over, they too would demand the right to enrich uranium.) It’s also a matter of international law. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty makes a deal with its signatories (which include Iran): If you forgo nuclear weapons, not only can you develop nuclear energy “for peaceful purposes,” you have an “inalienable right” to do so, and the big nuclear powers will help get you the technology.

That is a flaw with the NPT: Countries can enrich uranium—the easiest way to develop peaceful nuclear energy—and stay within the legal limits of the treaty, until one day, all of a sudden, the stuff is enriched to “bomb-grade” levels. At that point, they’ve broken the treaty, but it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it.

At the moment, Iran’s centrifuges have enriched uranium to a 20 percent level of purity. Bomb-grade uranium requires a level of roughly 80 percent, but it’s relatively simple—it’s a matter only of more time, not improved technology—to get from 20 percent to 80 percent. Many experts believe that a reasonable arms-control accord would set Iran’s nuclear program back to enrichment levels of 5 to 10 percent. That would be enough for electrical power or medical research, but if they cheated or broke the accord, it would take them several years to get back to bomb-building levels.

In his Sept. 24 address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama said two things that no doubt grabbed the Iranian delegates’ attention. The first: “The supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.” The second: “We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” The first was a signal that Obama is willing to take the supreme leader at his word, at least for starters. The second remark was a reference to the Non-Proliferation Treaty—the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear energy—and a clear signal that he would not demand, as part of a deal, that Iran stop enriching uranium.

But, as with the question of sanctions, will Obama be able to make this promise stick? Will his hard-line interest groups insist on zero enrichment as the prerequisite for any deal?

Even if the negotiators reach an acceptable formula on enrichment and sanctions, other issues are bound to come up, either at the table or in various chambers back home. The United States and Iran have some common interests: Both are deeply opposed to al-Qaida and its affiliates (for a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran supplied us with intelligence on the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan); Iran is also keen to get chemical weapons out of Syria. However, Iran has spread weapons to Shiite terrorist groups throughout the Middle East, especially Hezbollah. It is deeply tied to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria (which serves as a way station for its expansive ambitions across the region). And, despite Rouhani’s recent condemnation of the Nazis’ mass killings of Jews (a very big deal, by the way), he did not come any closer to recognizing Israel.

Here, though, is where analogies to Cold War détente are fitting. For a quarter-century, Soviet and American diplomats met regularly and routinely to discuss the deadliest weapons on the planet. Even before then, as early as the mid-1960s, they took certain measures—for instance, they set up a presidential hotline—to help prevent crises from erupting into catastrophe. They maintained all these contacts even while disagreeing, sometimes even fighting proxy wars, over fundamental issues of politics, economics, social standards, and human rights. Many critics lashed out at these presidents and diplomats for negotiating with evildoers and for shortchanging American values. But preventing nuclear war is no small value, and in the end, “peaceful coexistence”—a hoary phrase though it was at the time—came true. We all held on, until the Soviet system imploded.

It’s unclear where the Iranian-American talks are going, but the fact that they’re happening is remarkable, and it’s worth a lot—in terms of our interests and our values—to play this game out for as long and as far as possible.