Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Issue

Talks on the Iranian nuclear issue are being held is certainly a positive achievement, because the alternative to talks is the use of military force. Second, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is monitoring the situation and has managed to keep it within the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Interview with Dr. Petr Stegniy (History), member of the Russian International Affairs Council and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Talks about the Iranian nuclear issue were held in Kazakhstan in April 2013. On July 16, senior diplomats from the group of six countries – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain) and Germany – met in Brussels to discuss the possibility of resuming talks with Iran. The next round of talks has been scheduled for September. Are they moving in circles or have there been positive results?

The six-nation Iran talks began in 2006 and have seen their ups and downs and have reached some interim decisions, so the process cannot be described as moving in circles.

First, the fact that talks on the Iranian nuclear issue are being held is certainly a positive achievement, because the alternative to talks is the use of military force. Second, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is monitoring the situation and has managed to keep it within the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In other words, the situation has been kept within bounds, even despite the sanctions of the UN Security Council and some individual countries. The chances for a compromise solution that would satisfy the international community have increased following the presidential elections in Iran.

Hassan Rouhani has announced that Iran’s nuclear program is “completely transparent” and that Tehran is ready to make it even more transparent in order to show the world that it has been acting in compliance with international agreements. How would you describe the political situation around Iran? Will its new president accept a compromise?

The presidential elections in Iran were a seminal event and their result may change the direction of developments regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Hassan Rouhani has close ties with reformers and is an authorized representative of the country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For several years bеfore 2003 he was Iran’s main negotiator on the nuclear issue at talks with France, Germany and the UK (the EU3). Rouhani was tough on principles but flexible on tactics, which resulted in a number of agreements that mollified some of the international community’s fears over Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani was inaugurated as Iran’s new president on August 3-4 and has made statements that may mean that he is aware of the need to break out of Iran’s growing isolation and would seek out a policy that would enable him to gradually normalize the situation. It will be a long process involving difficult talks. The final goal is to ease concern over Iran’s intentions, which appears to be sufficiently realistic and feasible.

First, information about Iran’s new cabinet, which Rouhani had approved, is optimistic. His foreign minister will be Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is well known in the West, was educated in Europe and knows the specific elements of the situation around the Iranian nuclear issue. Moreover, he was Iran’s ambassador to the UN in 2003-2007.

The chief of Rouhani’s staff will be US-educated businessman Mohammad Nahavandian, who holds a green card and has worked under several Iranian presidents. When Iranian diplomats were denied US visas in 2005, he went to the United States, allegedly to attend a scientific conference but in reality to hold talks that contributed to keeping tensions around Iran’s nuclear program at bay.

Another inspiring element is the global reaction to the Iranian elections. On the plus side, Saudi Arabia has congratulated Rouhani on his election. However, there are also pessimistic forecasts of the future of talks with Iran. The main pessimist is Israel, which, it must be said, has reasons for pessimism, in particular the two-term rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who regularly made harsh anti-Israeli statements.

Israel believes that the presidential elections in Iran were a tactical maneuver aimed at helping the regime of ayatollahs break out of isolation, which would not change Iran’s strategy of creating nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. In my opinion, the appearance of new people among Iran’s leadership is not a tactic, but rather, represents a strategic understanding of the fact that lifting tensions around Iran’s nuclear program is the best solution that is acceptable to both Iran and the rest of the world.

When we speak about the international reaction, we should keep in mind that Iran’s nuclear issue has a global component insofar as the world has been trying to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If Iran creates a nuclear bomb, this could inspire a number of other "threshold" countries which have made statements to this effect. This could provoke an undesirable domino effect.

On the other hand, contradictions between Sunnis and Shias have grown dramatically in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has been going on for two and a half years. Tehran is considered a Shiite leader, and so its relations with the Gulf countries dominated by Sunni Islam have deteriorated. The possibility that Tehran may acquire nuclear weapons is a major irritant against the backdrop of the current regional processes.

I noticed that Rouhani described Saudi Arabia as a fraternal state in one of his first speeches after his inauguration. This is the first such statement made by an Iranian official in years. Rouhani also recalled that he was among those who proposed signing a security agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1998, which suggests a positive conclusion regarding his intentions.

The US will press for harsher sanctions against Iran, because apart from rocket launches Iran is also developing uranium enrichment programs contrary to UN resolutions. Israel has taken an even harder line. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that Iranian professionals are working in two areas: creating a nuclear bomb as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles that would reach US territory. If sanctions fail to reach their goal, Israel is ready to launch military action without US approval. Does this mean that there is no hope for a reset in Iran’s relations with the West and neighboring countries?

I wouldn’t be so categorical about the positions of the countries involved in this issue. On July 31, the US Congress adopted a bill to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran, in particular to cut oil imports from Iran by 1 million barrels per day over a year. But it was also decided to review for humanitarian reasons the list of US products that are banned from being exported to Iran, primarily medical goods.

The Obama administration has been treading lightly, not unlike Condoleezza Rice, who said that sanctions should be the means of achieving the goal of compelling Iran to curtail its nuclear program, but they must not affect the Iranian people. This is an encouraging sign.

I would like to mention some unofficial information about the alleged development of direct official and unofficial contacts between the US and Iran. This could be a crucial factor, because the situation around Iran reached a critical stage in the fall of 2012, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke about launching a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities as a practical task that was being discussed in detail. The US played a major positive role by calming down the Israeli leadership. But soon afterward Mr. Netanyahu said at the UN General Assembly that the military scenario must remain on the table and that it was a vital element of Israel’s official stance. He even mentioned a point at which Iran may cross the red line, when the world would be unable to stop its nuclear weapons program, which Israel claims to be real, using only political and diplomatic methods.

The US bill on Iranian sanctions has so far been adopted by the House of Representatives. The Senate will discuss it in September. The world has interpreted the delay as an opportunity for Mr. Rouhani to take practical action to convince the world of the seriousness of his intention to bring the situation around Iran’s nuclear program back to the political and diplomatic level.

Moscow’s position differs from that of the US and Israel. It believes that Iran has the right to develop a peaceful nuclear program in conditions of transparency and under IAEA supervision. Russia has questioned the recent report of the UN Security Council’s panel of experts, which claimed that Iran violated its obligations, and has joined forces with China to block new sanctions. What is Russia’s current stand on Iran? Has Iran become yet another irritant in US-Russian relations?

Iran has always been a priority issue on Russia’s political agenda and policy in the region and the world. The basic elements of Russia’s Iran policy have not changed since the Iranian issue first came to light. Like all other countries, Russia does not want the number of nuclear states to increase. The security system that has been developing since the end of the Cold War is still in the transition stage, where we are developing new norms of international relations. Hence, Russia has always said that Iran’s nuclear program should be addressed as a non-proliferation issue and that corresponding instruments should be used to resolve it, including the 5+1 format of past and future talks.

The format was proposed by Russia in 2006, when we suggested that the EU3 be joined by China and the United States. The group may sometimes stumble because of its member countries’ different views on the Iranian nuclear issue. Nevertheless, it is an efficient and promising instrument, and Russia should focus its political and diplomatic efforts in this area. Second, Russia has always said that all countries have a right to develop civilian nuclear programs. We believe, and have said so to our partners off the record and at official consultations, that Iran is not implementing – at least not yet – a nuclear weapons program, and that the international community should therefore stick to political and diplomatic methods.

There are indeed some differences between Russia and the United States. For example, Russia believes that only sanctions approved by the UN Security Council should be applied against Iran and that such sanctions should not be aimed at overthrowing Tehran or any other governments.

Back when the issue of Iraq was discussed, Russia said that there are tools for launching a mechanism of sanctions, but there are no tools for stopping it. This has led to major negative consequences in Iraq, and Russia does not want a repetition of this situation anywhere else. We don’t want anyone to use the UN dais to show vials of white powder and to use this as a reason for collective or unilateral invasion of sovereign countries. We caution against making abrupt movements not only because we fear the domino effect, but also because such movements can have a negative impact on the principles of international cooperation, which we need to create jointly and without delay.

Iran and the sizzling Middle East make up an area where the leading global powers can and should learn to cooperate. This concerns, in particular, Russia’s relations with its American and European partners. We must look directly at the new realities and respect regional countries.

It was earlier reported that Vladimir Putin planned to visit Iran in mid-August, but Iran’s ambassador to Russia and Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov have refuted the announcement. It is now said that Putin and his Iranian counterpart will meet in September during the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Was Putin’s visit to Iran called off or did he never plan to make it?

In such situations I prefer to rely on official statements. Peskov’s words that “the date for Mr. Putin’s visit has not yet been set” appear to be the only authentic information. The organization of a regional visit is an extremely difficult task for diplomats, who need to coordinate the agenda and to fit this visit in among the planned visits to other countries. Hence, I don’t see anything dramatic in this and would not describe the situation as the frustration of plans.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Rouhani will meet in Bishkek in September. If it is decided that they need to plan a bilateral visit, the issue will be coordinated. Russia and Iran have good relations. There are some stumbling blocks, but we see ways to remove them. The main thing is that we have a high level of trust, and I think that this level will grow even higher now that Iran has a new president.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.