President Obama’s failure to sign off on a final nuclear agreement with Iran, which would have reined in but not eradicated its nuclear enrichment program, undercuts Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and strengthens the hardliners who never trusted Obama and the U.S., as Ted Snider describes.
By Ted Snider
The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani choreographed Iranian foreign policy into a position of cooperation with America and the West. He made conciliatory comments toward Israel, and he created a climate that made serious nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China plus Germany) possible.
But as those negotiations have once again failed to reach a final agreement and with a more hawkish crowd coming into Congress hope for a deal that constrains but doesn’t cancel Iran’s nuclear program recedes further and further. The extension of the deadline until June looks more like a stay of execution.
Yet, this is not the first time that Iran has approached America and Europe with a willingness to cooperate only to see it rebuffed. In 1997, Iranians surprised the experts by electing the reformist Seyyed Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. Like Rouhani, Khatami wanted to smooth Iran’s relations with the U.S. and the West.
Khatami began his overtures with a condemnation of terrorism and a declaration of Iran’s willingness to accept a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine if that was the desired route of the Palestinians. With that declaration, Iran implicitly recognized the State of Israel because you can’t accept a two-state solution without recognizing each of the states.
After 9/11, Khatami again signalled his desire to work with America by facilitating the Northern Alliance fight against the Taliban, by offering Iran’s air bases for use against the Taliban, by giving the U.S. intelligence on Taliban and Al-Qa’ida targets and by apprehending hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qa’ida fighters who had fled into Iranian territory. Iran also helped set up a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan and offered its help in rebuilding the Afghan army.
In 2003, Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also approved a comprehensive nuclear proposal that would commit Iran to welcoming international inspectors, making its nuclear program entirely transparent, and signing the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (in addition to having already signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). President George W. Bush ignored the offer, refusing even to respond except by rhetorically tossing Iran into the Axis of Evil with its long-time enemy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the isolated state of North Korea.
Khatami’s overtures to and cooperation with America failed to bring about any improvement in relations. When Iranian leaders extended a hand of friendship, Bush brushed it away and marked them as a diabolical enemy.
Khatami was stunned and his hard-line adversaries pounced on his humiliation. The failure of his cooperative, reformist approach toward America and the West was seized upon by the hardliners as evidence that you cannot, in fact, ever negotiate a deal with the United States.
Khatami’s failure contributed directly to the election of the much more conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005. Ahmadinejad would also take a tougher approach on nuclear negotiations and expand Iran’s production of enriched uranium that brought threats of a military attack from Israeli leaders and hardliners in the United States.
So, the failure by the West to engage Iran when it offered a more reformist president as a partner and the failure to conclude a nuclear agreement when the opportunity was presented, led to a more difficult Iranian president and a more dangerous confrontation over the nuclear issue.
Rouhani, who took office in 2013, offered a second chance. Once again, a reformist president offered the West cooperation in its wars against terrorist groups, made conciliatory comments about Israel and created the conditions for serious negotiations on the nuclear issue.
Plus, this time, the offers of cooperation extended beyond Afghanistan into Iraq, and the conciliatory comments toward Israel took the form of explicitly recognizing and condemning the Holocaust. The nuclear negotiations offered real hope about placing tight limits on Iran’s nuclear program to ensure that it would only be used for peaceful purposes.
But again the United States lacked the political will to capitalize on the opportunity, a failure that may have sunk the Obama administration’s best hope for friendly relations with Iran while creating a political dynamic inside Iran that could strengthen the hardliners and doom the temporary limits placed on Iran’s nuclear program.
There are at least four undesirable outcomes that could result: The first is that, in the absence of an agreement with Iran over uranium enrichment, Iran will be free to return to the former full menu of civilian enrichment activities, from 3.5 percent for energy to 19.5 percent for medical isotopes, without international inspections, monitoring or accountability. That would put Iran much closer to the higher refinement of enriched uranium needed to produce a bomb.
The second unwelcome development would be the missed opportunity to cooperate with Iran in the significant areas where its interests overlap with the West’s and over which the Iranians exert enormous influence, like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the region in general.
The third possibility is that if Iran gives up its hopes to reconcile with America and the West, it may turn east, the “look to the east option” articulated by Ayatollah Khamenei, to China, throwing the regionally powerful Iran into the arms of America’s rival superpower: again, surely not the geopolitical outcome the U.S. was hoping for.
Whenever Iran’s attempts to improve relations with America and the West fail, Iran works to forge closer ties with alternate powerful states and, especially, with China, according to former senior U.S. national security officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.
The fourth outcome could be a repeat of the Khatami failure, giving the hardliners enhanced influence and power to the detriment of American foreign policy interests.
Based on Iran’s past experience with Khatami’s humiliation and a similar outcome from an earlier outreach by Khatami’s predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani Iran’s hardliners will have been vindicated again in their assessment that a posture of trust and cooperation toward the West is historically naive.
Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, said all along that while he supported Rouhani’s efforts, he believed they “will have no benefit and will lead nowhere.” If the P5+1 negotiations are not rescued from their current state of limbo, Iranian hardliners can wield the “we-told-you-so” club against the reformers and likely reclaim control of Iranian foreign policy.
As Iran expert Trita Parsi has said, “If diplomacy fails . . ., [Khamenei] will claim vindication. His mistrust of the West will have proven correct, as will his line that Iran’s interest is best served by resisting rather than collaborating with the West. Iran’s moderates and pragmatists will once again be pushed to the margins of Iranian politics. Rouhani will be weakened and momentum will shift back to . . . the hardliners.”
Iranian hardliners will once again accuse the West of negotiating in a manner that sets conditions that are impossible to accept. Rouhani has recently said that, if a deal is ever to be reached, the United States will have “to stop making excessive demands,” adding: “Iran has made its utmost efforts and made the necessary adjustments to its demands and we hope that all the P5+1 countries, particularly the U.S., which occasionally seeks excessive demands in the nuclear talks, will understand the circumstances.”
If the hardliners do take control of Iranian foreign policy, negotiating a nuclear agreement outside of the context of a more comprehensive agreement may again prove much more difficult, as it did after Khatami’s failure. It could also lead to an unmonitored nuclear Iran, which could be followed by an escalation of Israeli hostility including a possible military strike and by a stronger Iranian relationship with China.
So, failure to seize upon the historical opportunity provided by Rouhani could win America precisely the set of results it says it wants to avoid.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.