Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.
“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.
In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.
“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”
“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”
Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”
Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”
“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”
Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.
Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.
Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.
“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”
“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”
“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”
New York__ President Obama spoke by phone with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani Friday, officials from both countries said, another remarkable gesture in a week in which US and Iranian leaders moved tentatively to test opportunities to forge more direct contacts in and out of the public spotlight.
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a hastily arranged press conference Friday. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program….While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”
The 15-minute phone call–the first between presidents of the two countries since 1979–was initiated by Obama at 2:30pm Friday as Rouhani was wrapping up his four day trip to New York, after the Iranians reached out Friday to express interest in a call, US and Iranian officials said. It came a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made history, by meeting one on one Thursday for half an hour, on the sidelines of six party nuclear talks.
Obama, in the call, congratulated Rouhani on his election, and urged that the two leaders seize the opportunity for a nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday. A “breakthrough on the nuclear issue could open the door to a [more constructive] relationship between the US and Iran,” the US official summarized.
“The Iranian and US presidents underlined the need for a political will for expediting resolution of West’s standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program,” Alireza Miryusefi, a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN, said in a statement Friday.
“President Rohani and President Obama stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues,” he said.
Some observers, noting that President Obama himself announced the call in a live statement at the White House Friday and the Iranian president's office's tweets on the call, suggested there may have been more substantive information exchanged between the two sides this past week to warrant such unusual displays of enthusiasm from cautious leaders.
The Iranians “came here to do a deal, and whatever they said [Thursday in the Kerry Zarif meeting...] persuaded the White House that this was not just a charm offensive,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy planning official and an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, said Friday.
“They have a deal outlined,” she said. “Whatever they've communicated must be legitimate and compelling to have drawn out this risk-averse president.”
A Twitter account purporting to be linked to Rouhani's office also described the call–in tweets the White House said they saw and which they said accurately conveyed the tone of the call–though Iranian officials in New York said they do not confirm the account is legitimate.
“In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue,” the @HassonRouhani account said, and which the White House twitter account (@WhiteHouse) retweeted.
In the call, according to a tweet on Rouhani's Twitter account that was later deleted, Obama expressed his “respect for [Rouhani] and the people of Iran. I'm convinced that relations between Iran and US will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on nuclear file, other issues such as Syria will certainly be positively affected.”
Obama signed off on the call, which was conducted through translators, with a Persian goodbye, after Rouhani wished him farewell in English, the White House said. (Rouhani's Twitter account, in a tweet that was later deleted, said Rouhani told Obama in English, 'Have a Nice Day!' and Obama responded with, 'Thank you. Khodahafez.')
On Tuesday, the Iranians declined a US offer to have an Obama Rouhani encounter or handshake in New York, when both leaders addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
Rouhani and Zarif have both described Obama and Kerry in positive terms this week, and expressed optimism about negotiations to ease tensions between the West and Iran, starting with the nuclear issue.
“The end goal is to ensure the interests of both sides, step by step to build confidence between the two nations,” Rouhani told journalists at a press conference Friday.
(Top photo: Historic phone call in the Oval Office: President Obama talks with Iran President Hassan Rouhani this afternoon. Pete Souza, White House. Second photo, from @HassanRouhani Twitter account: 'After historic phone conversation with @BarackObama, President #Rouhani in plane abt to depart for Tehran.')
New York __ There will be no meeting between President Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani this week, the White House said Tuesday, saying the Iranians had declined.
The White House offered to have “an encounter” between Obama and Rouhani at the United Nations, but the Iranians informed the US Tuesday “it is too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point,” senior US administration officials informed the White House pool reporter Tuesday afternoon.
“It was clear that it was too complicated for them,” a senior US official told the pool reporter.
Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday as part of a P5+1 foreign ministers meeting.
Zarif attended and appeared to listen intently to Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning, during which Obama said the Iranian people deserve access to peaceful nuclear energy, and said the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran.
Rouhani however did not attend a lunch for world leaders hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, which Obama attended, and where some thought a handshake might occur. While some Iranians said Iranian leaders have avoided such UN lunches in the past because wine is served, several Iran experts thought a public encounter with the US president in the spotlight may just be too much for Rouhani at this point.
It may be “too much, too soon,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at the Asia Society, which is hosting Rouhani Thursday. More important, she said, is the agreement that Kerry and Zarif will pursue a serious attempt at negotiations, which Obama firmly endorsed in his speech.
“I didn’t expect a handshake,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center said Tuesday, adding she is “still puzzled as to why both sides seemed to be hyping the possibility of a meeting, or at least didn’t dismiss it.”
“It’s not the right time for a presidential photo op, really,” Maloney said. “This needs to be more ripe to justify inserting the principals.”
“It’s important to note that the process here is what’s important,” a second senior US official said. “It’s the fact that Secretary Kerry is proceeding with P5+1…We were open to a meeting. The president was open to a meeting. But the real work on resolving this issue has to be done through substantive negotiations.”
US officials said they had been able to convey messages about willingness for an encounter to Iran, including through staff contacts in New York, but declined to specify what those were.
“We have an ability to be in touch with the Iranians at a variety of levels,” a US official said. “We’ve been doing that here in New York, and today I think it became apparent that the two leaders having an encounter here on the margins of UNGA was not going to happen.”
“I think the takeaway again is the Iranians #1 have an internal dynamic that they have to manage,” the official continued. “The relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western countries even.”
“Now we see a real opening here for a diplomatic process, and that’s going to be carried forward by Secretary Kerry meeting with his counterpart , which is a significant elevation of the level that that exchange is taking place again through that P5+1 process,” the official said. “But again the Iranians at this point were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.”
(Photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday September 24, 2013. Laura Rozen.)
President Obama, speaking to ABC in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, confirmed that he and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, and said he holds out hope that the US and Iran can reach a nuclear deal. But he said that negotiating with Iran would not be easy, and stressed that Iran should not doubt his resolve to prevent it getting nuclear weapons, despite the US agreeing to a last-minute Russian bid to remove Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S.-led air strikes.
“I have. And he’s reached out to me,” Obama said, when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Obama said, citing the risks to US “core interests” that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel, and of a nuclear arms race in the region.
“My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what…they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
“Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,” Obama said. “I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can you can strike a deal… and I hold out that hope.”
Obama–interviewed a day ahead of the announcement that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal on removing Syria’s chemical weapons—also said that he would welcome efforts by Russia and even Iran to help end the civil war in Syria, despite considerable disagreements over the conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I think that if in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but [is] destabilizing the entire region…we can do something [about] it,” he said.
The president’s confirmation of the correspondence with Rouhani comes as a former member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team wrote that Iran’s Supreme Leader has given permission for US-Iran direct talks.
“Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration to enter into direct talks with the U.S.,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an oped published by Japan Times Friday (Sept. 13). “No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along. ”
Asked by Al-Monitor Sunday if Khamenei has given permission for direct talks on the nuclear issue or Syria, Mousavian replied: “both.”
Former State Department Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney described the letter exchange as part of a broader series of recent signs of a still fragile but potentially unprecedented shift in the Islamic Republic.
Lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton said Tuesday she looks forward to resuming Iran nuclear talks as soon as possible after the appointment of Iran's new nuclear negotiating team, following the inauguration next month of Iran president elect Hassan Rouhani.
Ashton spoke after a meeting in Brussels Tuesday of political directors from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China.
“We met to consider our position and to look at how best we can move forward in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue,” Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said in a statement.
“Of course we wait now for the team to be appointed by Iran,” she said. “We very much hope that will be soon and we look forward to meeting with them as soon as possible.
The six powers are likely to ask Iran when talks resume in the fall to provide a substantive response to an updated confidence building proposal they presented at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February, a senior US official told Al-Monitor last week.
“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the senior US official said, stressing the proposal is open for negotiating, but they were reluctant to negotiate among themselves before hearing back from the Iranians.
“The onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.
Some Iran experts are urging the Obama administration to be preparing a bolder offer, or at least to offer further clarification on a “road map” for resolving the nuclear dispute, beyond the confidence-building measure, which is focused on curbing Iran’s 20% enrichment.
“The administration ought to be going into these talks with an open mind and thoughts about how the negotiating process can be most usefully advanced,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Monday. Continue reading →
Four days after entering Iran’s presidential race, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Wednesday.
‘We had a useful discussion. It was not a negotiating round,” Ashton said after the dinner meeting, which was held at Iran’s consulate in Istanbul. “We talked about the proposals we had put forward and we will now reflect on how to go on to the next stage of the process. We will be in touch shortly.”
The negotiators’ meeting comes as six world powers have more or less put Iran nuclear diplomacy on hold while Iran’s presidential campaign, scheduled for June 14th, plays out.
Jalili’s entrance into Iran’s presidential race highlights some of the complications western negotiators confront in securing a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
While Iran’s nuclear file–as lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a Senate panel Wednesday– is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not the Iranian president, the deep fissures that have roiled the Iranian regime under the polarizing Ahmadinejad presidency have greatly complicated international negotiators’ task by making internal Iran consensus that much harder for Tehran to achieve.
Jalili, 47, a trusted Khamenei aide who has served since 2007 as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor–has managed to largely bypass the bitter feuds that have polarized Iran’s ruling factions, analysts and associates observe. As a candidate who may be able to unite key conservative factions, a Jalili presidency potentially offers the prospect of a more consolidated Iranian leadership, which might be able to muster internal Iranian consensus if the Leader decides to make a deal, some analysts suggest.
But Jalili’s elliptical negotiating style and somewhat retro worldview, while no doubt reflecting the milieu and instructions given from the Supreme Leader, also magnify the extreme difficulty of negotiating with an Iranian regime that is so isolated from and mistrustful of the outside world.
“I think he is the anointed one,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, told Al-Monitor. The regime “may test run it, see how he [does], if anybody else appears to take off.”
While Jalili has developed the reputation in some Iranian circles of being a not very effective international negotiator, Maloney said, “what is interesting is that Jalili managed the Ahmadinejad-Supreme Leader divide astutely. He has not been forced to side with one or the other.”
Current and former Iranian associates describe Jalili as a pious and intelligent man, who has earned the trust of the Supreme Leader, but shown a disinclination to deeply engage with the modern world.
Born in 1965 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, where Supreme Leader Khamenei is also from, Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war vet who joined Iran’s foreign ministry around 1990. (Earning his PhD from Iran’s Imam Sadeqh University, Jalili wrote his doctoral dissertation on the prophet Mohammad’s diplomacy.) He worked in the 1990s as an official in Iran’s foreign ministry, and then in 2001 joined the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, he became an advisor to new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2007 he has served as the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
“Before he became secretary of the SNSC, he worked in the office of the Supreme Leader for some time, in the inner circle, in the international affairs department,” an Iranian analyst and associate, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “He is liked [there] as somebody who is down to earth, who has a simple life, very honest. He is the prototypical revolutionary whom they like within the clerical system; they [and the Supreme Leader] trust him in a way.”
But part of Jalili’s appeal for Khamenei and the clerical circles is a kind of self-selecting isolationism and retro way of looking at the world, that seems somewhat stuck in the 1980s, when Iran fought an eight year war with Iraq, the Iranian analyst observed.
Though Jalili served for over a decade in Iran’s foreign ministry, he never served abroad, and allegedly turned down an offer to serve in Latin America, the associate said. And while Jalili worked for a time in the Foreign Ministry’s Americas’ bureau, he is not believed to be able to speak much English, the lingua franca of international diplomacy which is spoken by many Iranian diplomats, though his associate said he believes Jalili can read and understand it.
“That’s the real problem,” the Iranian analyst said. Figures like Jalili who have ascended to the top of Iranian conservative political circles in recent years “are not stupid. They are intelligent. But they have not been socialized in the way that global politics works.”
“We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a joint conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in Amman Tuesday, Agence-France Press reported.
“We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra,” Salehi added, referring to the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq, that has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States but been among the more militarily effective anti-Assad militias on the ground in the conflict.
Salehi’s two day visit to Jordan, a close US ally, comes amid a flurry of intensified regional and international diplomacy on the Syria conflict, and as the United States and Europeans consider stepped up measures to aide the Syrian opposition on the ground while pushing the two sides into transition talks.
“We’re working intensively with a range of partners to strengthen the Syrian opposition and help shift the balance on the ground, which is essential to any chance of shifting Asad’s calculus,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in a speech at Princeton University Saturday.
Secretary of State John Kerry was in Russia Tuesday for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to find “common ground” on Syria. Kerry is due to meet with Jordan’s Nasser Judeh in Rome on Wednesday.
Salehi, meantime, was scheduled to travel on to Damascus later Tuesday for a meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, IRNA and AFP reported. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, is due to make a rare visit to Iran next week.
Iran’s stepped up diplomacy on Syria in the wake of Israeli strikes in Syria over the weekend is part of Tehran’s “hedging” strategy, to ensure “the Islamic Reublic retains influence in Damascus irrespective of he outcome of the civil war,” Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney wrote at the Brookings Institution website Tuesday.
“Iran hopes to preserve at least a vestige of its ally Bashar, but has also sought a seat at the table in shaping post-Asad Syria in any formal regional dialogue,” Maloney wrote. Tehran also has “a genuine national interest in precluding the expansion of Sunni extremism.”
Iran has continued to be involved in a regional dialogue on how to resolve the Syria crisis with Egypt and Turkey, a member state diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told al-Monitor Monday. (Saudi Arabia has refused to attend the meetings of the regional ‘quartet’ because of Iran’s presence, the diplomat said.)
A high level US Defense Department delegation is also currently in Jordan for meetings of the US-Jordan Joint Military Commission, that got underway Monday. Continue reading →
As Iran continues to balk at scheduling new nuclear talks, six world powers are prepared to wait them out.
European diplomats said this week that Iran was giving them the run-around in scheduling a new round of talks.
In the latest salvo in the blame-game over the delay, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council claimed in a statement Friday that it is actually the P5+1 asking to push back the meeting. Deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid called her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Friday, to ask to delay the meeting ’til February “because the P5+1 isn’t ready,” Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Friday. “Bagheri…asked [the] P5+1 to be committed to the fixed dates in January,” the Iran NSC statement said, implying the six powers were the ones holding up resumed talks.
“Nonsense,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, fired back. “The reason for the hold-up is not the 3+3. We are ready and have been for a long time.”
“We had at least five calls to push for a January 28-29 meeting in Istanbul – they did not accept,” a western diplomatic source told the Back Channel Friday. “Now we offered new dates in February (as Jan. 28 now too late from a logistical point of view) and we hope that they will finally accept so we can leave these games behind and focus on substance.”
Tehran’s procrastination is meant to show that the Western sanctions are not working and they are in no big hurry to get back to talks, Iran expert Trita Parsi wrote at the Huffington Post Thursday. But it may also be driven by Iranian fears that they will be blamed if the meeting fails, over what Iran sees as a paltry offer, he said in an interview Friday.
But the P5+1 is not going to improve the package to reward the Iranians for not coming, diplomats and analysts told the Back Channel, even as Iran is intent on showing the sanctions are not so devastating that they are desperate for a deal.
“In terms of why [the Iranians are] not coming, their objective is to hold out as long as possible, and draw as significant concessions as possible preemptively,” former State Department Iran advisor Suzanne Maloney told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “And I think they believe their leverage increases so long as they show they are not desperate for a deal.”
The Iranian calculation that delay favors their negotiating leverage is likely mistaken, Maloney said.
For the United States and P5 partners, “you sit and wait them out,” Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.
“I don’t think we improve the prospects for a deal by signaling” we’re prepared to sweeten the deal, she added. “They don’t put a lot of credibility in any signals we send, anyhow.”
While Iranian sources have suggested they are trying to press the P5+1 to put discussion of sanctions relief on the agenda for a new meeting, western diplomats say it’s simply “not true at all” that the group has resisted discussing sanctions relief, a European diplomat told the Back Channel Friday.
Former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said he expected Iran would likely show up for talks in February or so.
“They have no prospects of getting an improved deal if they don’t come,” Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. And “they run the risk…that pressure will go up.”
The Iranians “want to show they are in no hurry, that [the pressure] is not working,” Ross suggested. The Iranian calculus is that the longer the talks impasse drags on, and their program advances, “the pressure builds on us,” Ross said. “They believe we don’t really want to use force. …They are playing a very risky game.”
Iranian delay may also be the result of Iranian interest in seeing if Obama’s new national security team modifies US policy towards Iran, Ross said. Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry “in the past has signaled an interest in talking to them,” Ross said Iranian leaders may be thinking. “’Let the new team get on board.’ The truth is–and the Iranians will discover this as well–this is the same president and he is the one who makes the decisions.”
“I will give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat. …The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
“The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda here,” Kerry continued. “If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. That is what we are seeking.”
Maloney agreed Washington doesn’t need to go overboard to correct any Iranian misreading of Obama’s new national security team as being averse to the use of force if diplomacy with Iran fails.
“Ultimately, everyone knows that there’s a real military option,” Maloney said. “Sanctions are bleeding the country dry. … We don’t need to grandstand. We have far more leverage than the Iranians do.”
If and when negotiations resume, however, the United States will have to take a strategic decision “at what point are we prepared to pay to play,” Maloney said. “To put significant sanctions relaxation, even temporary relaxation, on the table.”
(Photo: U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.)
A growing chorus of national security experts from across the political spectrum is urging President Obama to pursue bolder diplomacy with Iran, including offering Iran a nuclear deal that would include sanctions relief.
“We know Iran is prepared to make a deal on 20% enrichment,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran advisor, said at a Brookings Institution foreign policy panel Thursday. “It’s low-hanging fruit. … Now is the time to get that deal.”
But getting it, she adds, will require President Obama to “elevate and intensify the diplomatic dialogue,” as well as offer some sanctions relief.
“The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date, and at least as inventive as the sanctions themselves have proven,“ Maloney wrote in a “memo to the president” published Thursday by the Brookings Institution.
The calls on President Obama to boost his Iran diplomatic game come at a paradoxical moment: Iran diplomacy is stuck, but a deal is in sight. There's increasingly broad consensus on the terms of an interim nuclear deal that many observers believe could be had. And the recently reelected US president, enjoying higher approval numbers going into his second term than throughout much of his first, is widely perceived to have the political space to offer more carrots if it would clinch a deal.
The uncertainty is Iran. Western negotiators are discouraged by the recent difficulty in getting Iran to even agree on the date and venue for resumed nuclear talks with the P5+1. Though consultations continue, no agreement on a new meeting date had been firmed up as of Thursday, American and European diplomats said.
“Tehran was asking [the] P5+1 about their new package prior to meeting,” former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian told the Back Channel Thursday. The “P5+1 was not ready to reveal [it] before the meeting. Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail and as always Tehran would be blamed.”
Perhaps defensive about their perceived stalling on new talks, Iranian officials signaled they were trying to set the agenda for the new meeting. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Barbara Slavin reported for Al-Monitor Jan. 14th.
“I think we sometimes read too much into Iranian foot dragging,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Back Channel. “Anyone who’s spent time in Tehran traffic or dealt with Iranian government agencies knows that efficiency and promptness are in short supply, especially on such a sensitive issue in which there may not exist an internal consensus.”
Reflecting the discouragement of American officials at the delay, he added: “When interested parties can’t agree on a date or location for a negotiation, it doesn’t portend well for the negotiation itself.”
That familiar and frustrating dynamic is in part what is driving a growing number of diplomats and policy analysts to urge Obama to take a less politically cautious approach, by signaling Iran that the United States is prepared to sweeten the deal, in return for greater Iranian transparency and inspections.
Two dozen former diplomats and experts, including former ambassadors Tom Pickering and James Dobbins, urged Obama “to direct your team vigorously to pursue serious, sustained negotiations with the Iranian government on an arrangement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran,” in a Dec. 20th letter, organized by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association.
“Iran has insisted on two benefits from a deal: sanctions relief and nuclear enrichment,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at The Atlantic this week. “An agreement is more likely if these issues are addressed with a generous offer.”
The value of the rial continued to fall after Ahmadinejad gave a speech Tuesday in which he blamed international sanctions and a handful of Iranian speculators for the rial’s drop, and urged Iranians to stop selling their rials to buy foreign currency.
But external factors alone do not account for the rial’s latest dive, some economists said.
Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, attributed the precipitous fall of the rial over the past week to the government’s decision to put more funds into a central exchange for approved importers and exporters. ”Because they moved it suddenly,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Tuesday, there was a shortfall in the free market.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters Wednesday, also said internal Iranian government decisions–”having nothing to do with the sanctions”–had played a role in the rial’s dive. “Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well,” she said, adding, “but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian Government were willing to work” with the international community to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
While ostensibly fueled by economic anxiety, rumors swirled that the rial protests Wednesday may also have been spurred in part by rival political factions hostile to Ahmadinejad, some Iran analysts said.
“I think we must be careful before jumping into any kind of conclusion about this particular protest,” Nazila Fathi, a journalist previously based in Iran for the New York Times and currently a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for International Security, told Al-Monitor by email.
“It might be part of the attack against Ahmadinejad to bring him down before his term is over,” Fathi said, noting the hostile tone of speeches this week by Ahmadinejad and one of his chief political rivals, Iran parliament speaker Ali Larijani.
Iranian media reports said over 100 people were arrested in the protests Wednesday. Meantime, journalists with the BBC and RFE/RL Persian services reported that their satellite broadcasts into Iran had been jammed Wednesday, to impede Iranians seeing news of the protests.
Iran watchers said the economy-fueled unrest was unlikely to be a one-off affair, given Iran’s economic predicament is likely to only get worse in the months ahead because of its dispute with the international community over its nuclear program.
“Iran’s economic outlook is more limited than at anytime in 50 years,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said at the Woodrow Wilson forum Wednesday.
“There are tremendous opportunity costs” to Iran for refusing to budge on its nuclear program and other policies, she said. “These are revenues and markets that will never be recaptured” and Iran’s ambitions for economic development and trade will be “clipped in the long term in a way that is degrading for the country.”
While Iran can weather sanctions, “the average citizen is very distressed,” and “in the short term, Iranian industry is suffering,” Bijan Khajehpour, another specialist on the Iranian economy, told the Wilson Center forum.
“The Iranian regime is going to face immense pressures in the months ahead,” agreed Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, in an email to Al-Monitor. “President Ahmadinejad, in particular, is in big trouble.”
“This is not just about the currency crisis,” Nader added, predicting greater instability in the country. “This is about everything that’s wrong with Iran today.”
–With Barbara Slavin (@barbaraslavin1), Al-Monitor’s Washington correspondent, and Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (@eborujerdi), of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse news blog.