Jessica Michek contributed to this post.
Last week saw historic developments in the U.S.-Iran relationship around the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. These developments culminated in an unprecedented 15 minute phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct contact between American and Iranian leaders since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. During the call, both leaders expressed their desire to reach an expedient solution to the nuclear issue.
The first indication of whether Rouhani’s charm offensive represents an Iranian change of heart, or just rhetoric, will come October 15 in Geneva when representatives from Iran and the P5+1 nations—the United States, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany—meet for yet another round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program beginning October 15th in Geneva.
While there is cause for cautious optimism, Rouhani and Iranian officials sent mixed signals at the U.N. General Assembly. Iranian officials dismissed arranging for a face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA as “too complicated” and denied an opportunity to shake Obama’s hand. Rouhani’s address was less conciliatory than hoped for, echoing familiar Iranian rhetoric arguably aimed at appeasing hardliners back home. While Rouhani’s remarks to CNN acknowledging the Holocaust were lauded, Rouhani subsequently disavowed them, blaming them on mistranslation from CNN.
These mixed signals may be one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a strong warning to the international community this week to not “let up the pressure” and that the only way sanctions should be lifted is if Iran completely dismantles its nuclear program. At a speech to the General Assembly this week, Netanyahu acknowledged that Rouhani was different than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he described as a “wolf in wolf’s clothing.” The difference between the two men, Netanyahu said, is that Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”
As talks approach and the United States prepares to test whether Rouhani will prove more willing to negotiate than his predecessor, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Iran Task Force – co-chaired by Senator Charles Robb and General (ret.) Charles Wald – recommends several principles for negotiating with Iran. Those principles are: (1) extend an open hand; (2) negotiate from a position of strength; (3) set and enforce deadlines; and (4) uphold United Nations Security Council resolutions. These principles involve making a serious and sincere effort towards a diplomatic resolution while maintaining and increasing pressure on Iran through sanctions and credible and visible preparation for a military option.
Adhering to these principles would allow diplomacy to get off the ground while minimizing the risk that Iranians will negotiate in bad faith and use diplomacy as a means to achieve more nefarious ends – such as forcing the removal of sanctions while continuing to advance its nuclear program under the table.
The comprehensive sanctions regime put in place by the UN, United States, the European Union and other countries have drastically slowed Iran’s economy. This strain contributed to Rouhani’s landslide victory, and makes securing relief from sanctions an imperative for Iran in new nuclear negotiations. Indeed, Zarif has said Iran is prepared to negotiate some aspects of its nuclear program, but only on the condition that sanctions are eased and eventually lifted. However, it is exactly because sanctions brought Iran back to the negotiating table that the United States should continue exerting maximum pressure during negotiations in order to incentivize good faith.
But perhaps most dangerously, Iran is poised on the threshold of undetectability: the capability to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear device faster than the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be able to detect it and the United States would be able to respond. Compounding that threat, Rouhani has admitted that during his tenure as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator (from 2003-2005) he used diplomatic engagement as a stalling strategy to allow Iran to advance its nuclear program.
For this reason, BPC reiterates the necessity of the continued pressure of a triple-track strategy: including diplomacy, sanctions, and credible and visible preparations of a military option- all of which BPC’s Iran Task Force recommended last year.
In addition, bipartisan legislation passed by the House of Representatives would tighten sanctions against Iran and put in place a mechanism for assessing Iran’s nuclear progress. This is an important step towards preventing a nuclear weapons capable Iran. A regular, credible assessment of Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capability and how sanctions are affecting it —as recommended last year by BPC —would help guard against such an Iranian attempt to run out the clock, even as we pursue a diplomatic solution.