President Barack Obama has decided to test whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive” is a legitimate effort to reach an agreement on a more constricted and transparent Iranian nuclear program. With this decision, he embarks on the most transformative and important diplomatic initiative of his presidency.
The closest historical analogy is President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China in 1971. Nixon had recognised a major adversary’s new willingness to change course and he seized the opportunity to further vital US national security interests.
This China analogy, however, has some flaws. Most important, Nixon and his national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger began their quest in secrecy to avoid a divisive public debate that could have scuttled the initiative. Obama’s public commitment to test an opening to Iran, though, will be subjected to fierce scrutiny by domestic and foreign opponents.
But other historic analogies now being suggested do not work at all. The much cited Munich analogy of “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War Two is absurd, since Iran’s Supreme Leader has neither the stated objective, nor the capability to take over the Middle East. Iran also has no history of military expansionism.
Nor is Rouhani Iran’s version of Mikhail Gorbachev, as some have suggested. Rouhani’s objective is to strengthen Iran’s governing system, not to “restructure” it, after the crippling eight years of the Ahmadinejad regime. He is working for a Supreme Leader who is determined to hold on to power and to strengthen the Islamic Revolution.
Here, again, the China analogy holds. Rouhani appears more like Deng Xiaoping, who designed a strategy to strengthen Beijing’s political control by easing domestic economic constraints and opening up China to the world.
Today Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is to meet with diplomats from the United States and its negotiating partners - Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany - known as the “P5+1.” He will formally provide the P5+1 delegates his government’s plan for an initial agreement, and also a diplomatic process that will lead to an endgame within a year’s time.
Zarif will most certainly expect an indication from the P5+1 representatives of the “endgame” of the negotiations. He will want to hear that, if each side complies with a mutually agreed upon plan to limit Iran’s nuclear program, the P5+1 will, in response, agree to recognize an Iranian nuclear program with some uranium enrichment and also agree to lift all sanctions.
Zarif’s presentation this week will likely have surprising proposals for which he will expect - indeed must have - comparable responses. Iranian officials have suggested that they would be willing to negotiate on fundamental aspects of their nuclear program, including a lower level of enrichment (cessation of enrichment to 20 percent, which is closer to weapons-grade, limits on the number of centrifuges, the number of facilities, the amount of material produced by each centrifuge, and eventually new safeguard rules and new arrangements for the heavy water reactor project.
In the International Atomic Energy Agency’s last quarterly report, Iran signaled its restraint by capping the amount of 20 percent material it produces; not using the advanced centrifuges it has installed, and pushing back the planned start date for the heavy water reactor at Arak.
The tough phase of diplomacy will begin as the P5+1 try to design a response that must include some sanctions relief. The Obama administration must find ways to drive a tough bargain with Iran, accommodate the positions of its negotiating partners, respond to the anxieties of Israel and the Arab nations and manage the suspicions of Congress.
Obama must determine whether he will be able to provide substantial sanctions relief to get an early agreement on sufficient limits and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program to allay the most serious concerns of the P5+1. Then he can work toward a long-term comprehensive settlement that includes a definition of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program with IAEA inspections, to assure the plan is being carried out.
The banking sanctions are key. The US Treasury Department’s banking restrictions have proved the most effective sanctions on Iran’s economy and its people. They are likely, therefore, to be those Iran is most eager to remove. Central and private banks around the world are reluctant to cross the US Treasury by financing trade with Iran. Unless the international banking community can be assured that Washington has lifted the banking sanctions for good, they are unlikely to undertake the long-term relations needed to open trade with Iran.
Thus, the first hurdle is likely to be the highest on this difficult diplomatic path. If Iran proposes an ambitious plan at Geneva, the P5+1 must be ready to respond in kind. Yet the US political system seems unprepared, psychologically or politically, for that step. Can Washington find a solution that will progressively begin to relieve the most crippling sanctions in tandem with Iran’s movement toward a more transparent and limited nuclear program? Technically, the answer is yes. But politically, Congress may not be ready.
This will require patience and political space in Tehran and Washington - as well as bold early action in Geneva from both sides, to demonstrate commitment to progress.
The United States has led the effort to use sanctions to pressure Iran’s leaders to engage seriously and agree to specific controls on their nuclear program. If Iran is now willing to take concrete and verifiable steps to do so, the rest of the world will expect Washington to lead the process to sanctions relief.
If it does not do so, international support for the sanctions could unravel - leaving the United States without a nuclear deal and without its strongest tool for leverage.
This meeting could be the most important moment in the US-Iranian relationship since 1979. The opportunity must be seized and tested.