By Kelsey Davenport
Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration today as president of Iran offers an important new opening for the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) to establish satisfactory controls over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. A regime-insider and former nuclear negotiator, Rouhani will likely have influence with Supreme Leader Khamenei that could enable him to cut a deal, if the P5+1 seizes the moment to reinvigorate negotiations.
But for diplomacy to have a chance, the United States needs to do its part not to sabotage this new opportunity before it begins. On the domestic front, Washington needs to do three things to send the right signals to Tehran: 1) set realistic expectations, 2) delay further sanctions, and 3) give the administration time to pursue negotiations.
Set realistic expectations
Rouhani’s presidency offers a new opportunity to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that satisfies all parties involved, but expectations must be realistic. Iran is extremely unlikely to accept an agreement that permanently suspends all uranium enrichment and the United States should not demand it. Nuclear power and national control over producing nuclear reactor fuel are widely supported in Iran. While Rouhani has stated that Iran is willing to be more transparent about its nuclear program, he is not going to end it completely.
And it is worth remembering that in March 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. policy on enrichment is that Iran should be able to enrich uranium to limited levels in the future, if Tehran answers past questions about possible military activities related to nuclear weapons development and agrees to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
An interim deal similar to what the P5+1 proposed during negotiations at Almaty, Kazakhstan in February and April 2013 is a good starting point that will allow Iran to continue some nuclear activities and address key concerns of the international community. And officials from countries negotiating with Iran have indicated that when talks resume, the P5+1 proposal will likely be along the lines of what was brought to the table in Almaty.
The Almaty proposal includes limits Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent and suspends further enrichment to that level, a key concern for the international community because the uranium can be more easily enriched further to weapons grade uranium.
But bolder action on the part of the P5+1 is required to balance Iran’s cost/benefits calculation in reacting to the proposal. The six countries should add further sanctions relief that will allow Rouhani to sell the proposal to the regime and the Iranian people. He has said that improving the economy is his first priority. Sanctions relief that will allow him to do so and address the most pressing concerns of the P5+1, would be a significant victory for both sides.
Delay any further sanctions
On July 31, the House of Representatives passed further sanctions on Iran. Moving ahead on sanctions at this time sends the wrong message, namely that the United States is not serious about entering into good-faith negotiations with Rouhani. Additionally, if the bill becomes law as written, it could seriously undermine the international cooperation on sanctions that the United States has worked hard to achieve and is integral to maintaining pressure on Tehran.
In its current form the legislation, H.R. 850, would require countries still importing oil from Iran, like China and India, to cumulatively cut their imports by one million barrels of oil per day over the next year. Iran only produces about that much. Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs and head of the U.S. delegation for the P5+1, warned Congress in testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing May 15 that if the United States wants to require further reductions in the oil imports, it has to “work very carefully” with the six importing countries. The Senate should heed this warning and delay any further sanctions to give negotiations time to proceed.
Give the administration time
Nor should we expect a deal to be reached quickly. Rouhani’s inauguration is a new opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts, but significant obstacles remain. Negotiations take time and the Obama administration must also be given space to achieve results.
Actions like the letter to President Obama written by Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) on July 30, are unhelpful and counterproductive. At the very time when a new and more conciliatory Iranian administration is taking office, this letter states that “the time for diplomacy is nearing its end,” and urges President Obama to ramp up sanctions and to “reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force.”
More helpful is a recent letter, authored by Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Charlie Dent (R-PA), and signed by 131 members of the House. This letter says it would “it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress” and urges the administration to pursue negotiations.
While no date has been set to resume negotiations, talks are likely to start up again this fall after Rouhani names his negotiating team. While his inauguration does not alter international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, Rouhani offers a new opening for negotiations. Let’s not undermine the potential for reaching a solution before talks even begin.