Rouhani’s WaPo Op-ed, Trip to the UN, Major New Concession, and an Opportunity Not to be MissedPosted: September 20, 2013
Many will have already read Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s op-ed published yesterday in the Washington Post. Part of an interesting trend lately, begun with Russian President Putin’s op-ed in the NYT last week, of foreign leaders trying to speak directly to the American people through leading American media outlets. Rouhani’s op-ed is just the most recent installment in a number of statements by the new Iranian president, including through a Twitter account, in which he has tried to strike a much more conciliatory and positive tone with the West and with Israel than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has said repeatedly that he is willing to negotiate on a real and meaningful basis with the West in order to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
It has been reported that President Obama and President Rouhani have already exchanged letters, in a very rare instance of direct communication between US and Iranian leaders. Further, in what appears to be a significant sign of goodwill, the US Treasury department has twice this year eased some provisions of its sanctions on Iran.
In the midst of these positive signs of a changed tone and willingness on the part of both sides to cooperate productively in negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program, President Rouhani will be traveling to the United Nations in New York next week, for his first address to the UN General Assembly.
In perhaps the most significant sign yet of Iran’s commitment to serious negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported a few days ago that President Rouhani is prepared to offer as a concession something that President Ahmadinejad would never have considered offering – the decommissioning of of the Fordow enrichment facility. The decommissioning of Fordow has been one of the P5+1’s longstanding demands in the negotiations. I wrote about it in one of my very first ACL posts last summer, including the explicit rejection of this idea by Iran’s IAEA representative at the time. The Der Spiegel report says that Rouhani may even make this offer publicly during his UN visit next week.
It it’s true that Rouhani is willing to put the decommissioning of Fordow on the table, then people can stop their dismissal of Rouhani’s recent statements as a charm offensive without any real substance. The decommissioning of Fordow would be a major concession by Iran to Western demands, and would, as part of a negotiated package deal, deserve a reciprocal major concession on the part of the P5+1, in the form of real and meaningful sanctions relief for Iran.
I think that the current circumstances of Rouhani’s election and mandate from the Iranian people, and his expressed willingness to negotiate productively and to put major concessions on the table, represent a historic opportunity that President Obama would be a fool to miss. I think he has a real chance here to do something that would re-earn him his Nobel Peace Prize – negotiate an accord with Iran over its nuclear program that will significantly reduce international tension surrounding this longstanding dispute, that has harmed the reputation of the US and the EU in the world, seriously damaged the perceived credibility of the IAEA, and harmed millions of Iranian civilians through international sanctions that courts in the EU have repeatedly found to be unlawful.
If President Obama takes this opportunity to lead the P5+1 to a negotiated accord with Iran, I think there is a real possibility for rollback of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran. This in turn would likely lead to a significant rollback in EU unilateral sanctions on Iran, which I suspect EU leaders would welcome in light of the ongoing legal problems they have encountered in implementing them. Rolling back US unilateral sanctions on Iran will be the most difficult part of the puzzle to put into place, primarily due to the influence of special interest groups supporting pro-Israel policies in Congress. I’m much less optimistic about meaningful unilateral US sanctions rollback. But rollback of UN Security Council sanctions and EU sanctions would appear eminently achievable if President Obama decides to exercise his second-term prerogative of doing what is, in fact, in the best interests of the United States and the world, even if it’s not politically popular in Congress, and seizing this historic moment to negotiate a meaningful diplomatic accord with Iran.