New president, same Iran


For an issue that was called time and again “the most pressing challenge to international security,” Iran’s nuclear program faced in the past few years quite flexible “red lines.” During his March visit to Israel, President Barack Obama told the local TV station that “right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” But the presidential elections in Iran and the victory of Dr. Hassan Rohani created another delay in possible U.S. action as a moderate candidate (moderate among those who were approved to take part in the elections, that is), Rohani prompted the U.S. administration to reiterate its call for the regime in Tehran to engage in “substantive, serious engagement” on its nuclear program.

Even before Rohani was sworn in, he managed to create a rift between the Obama administration and Congress. Last week, the House of Representatives passed with a 400-20 vote a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. The Department of State deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Aug. 1 that while the administration is fully committed to enforcing a comprehensive set of sanctions against Iran, it does have “some concerns over the specific contents of the legislation” — and the administration hopes to see President Rohani and his team conduct a dialogue with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. (See Page 5 for more about the House bill.)

During his first presidential press conference, Rohani used some “divide and conquer” tactics, announcing that Iran is serious and has the political will to resolve the mutual concerns about the nuclear program — if President Obama “stands up to the sanctions and war lobby in D.C.”

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, argues Rohani has a point questioning President Obama’s ability to deliver during the negotiations. “From the Iranian perspective, lots of questions shift back to the U.S. — do they really want transparency with regard to the nuclear program, or are they using sanctions as a tool to put Iran under a permanent state of isolation, more of a Cuba scenario?” he asked. “If sanctions are not lifted, and the U.S. president simply waives them, they are time limited — six months — and reversible, he or the next American leader can bring them back again, while the Iranians are asked for irreversible concessions. Iranians are not sure that in the current political landscape President Obama, who is not doing that well in Congress from gun control to immigration etc., can deliver.”

How about the ability of President Rohani to deliver? Common perception is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini is in charge, not Rohani.

“We don’t know for sure, but in 2003, as a head of the National Security Council, he led [Iran] to a suspension of enrichment activities for 20 months. It’s also important to remember that he is not a reformist but centrist, meaning he has decent relations with all factions, while reformists are aggressively opposed by some domestic groups.

“I think the Iranian people under the right deal will be willing to support transparency and limitations to the nuclear program as long as they get something in return, and right now they are suffering because of the sanctions. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Iran to give up on its nuclear program, and it’s not the objective of negotiations, but significant limitations and inspection measures are — to make sure they don’t have dash-out capability. And this is a very different proposition from giving up the enrichment that the Israeli government and some members of the Congress would certainly prefer.”

In the beginning of the week, a letter signed by 76 senators was delivered to President Obama, calling for tougher sanctions against Iran. “Until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force,” they wrote, reminding that “Iran has used negotiations in the past to stall for time.”

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu also made clear during this week’s Cabinet meeting that unlike the U.S., in Jerusalem there are no hopes for a change in Tehran. “The president of Iran has been replaced, but the goal of the regime has not been replaced. Iran’s intention is to develop a nuclear capability and nuclear weapons in order to destroy the state of Israel, and this constitutes a danger not only to us and the Middle East, but the entire world, and we are all committed to preventing this.”

Parsi says should Israel opt for a preventive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, he does not see any positive scenarios. “In most optimistic case, the nuclear program will be pushed back for one or two years, and the Iranians will double their efforts. The shortest way to make sure Iran makes the bomb is by bombing Iran. If Congress imposes further sanctions and Israel strikes when Iran has a president that millions voted for to move in a moderate direction — it will further erode trust and will lead Iranians to believe the nuclear program is just a pretext.”

He also thinks the U.S. made a mistake focusing mostly on the nuclear issue and not addressing other issues with Iran — human rights abuses in Iran, its support of terror and regional issues.

Dr. Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, says it’s “prudent when there is a change to give it an opportunity — Rohani is not Ahmadinejad.” But he is skeptical about the possibility of change in Iran’s foreign policy. “There will be change in tone and probably serious changes at home, where he has mandate and authority, trying to turn around the economy.”

But in terms of key issues — nuclear program and support of terrorism — he is not optimistic.

“I’d love to be wrong,” he says. “[But] we have precedents of two past presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who had been moderate, but not in support for the nuclear program, terrorism and hate of Israel. The U.S. administration can be open to dialogue — but the message that is coming from the city of Washington is that the sanctions will continue, and it’s a critical issue for the Iranian regime and Rohani, because he will be judged by his ability to turn this around. It was one of the issues he was elected on. Sometimes it’s useful for the administration to have Congress flexing its muscles.”

As for the Israeli government’s chilly reaction to the Iranian president inauguration, Levitt is not surprised a bit. “Netanyahu is responding to the Iranian leadership statements,” he shrugs. “I don’t think anybody is expecting Israel’s position on Iran to change — or vice versa.”

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