Behind the cautious rhetoric from President Obama about reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear energy program, you don’t have to listen very hard to know that he really wants a deal. And for more than a year now, the public pronouncements about the talks from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seem to indicate that he has the same hope. But Rouhani’s most recent comment, made in Tehran, is instructive for both the United States and Iran.
As talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) wind down in Vienna this week, with the November 24 deadline fast approaching, the U.S. and Iran held a session of bilateral talks on the deal. In Tehran on Wednesday, November 19, Rouhani said that if “the opposite party in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran has the political will for a deal and avoids excessive demands, the conditions are prepared for the conclusion of a deal.” Apparently this means that the key players in Tehran are of one mind on core issues.
But this may be a misleading assumption. Although Rouhani and his team of nuclear negotiators are of a moderate political persuasion, at least according to Middle East lights, and may indeed be united in reaching an agreement, they have been battling strong opposition to a deal from political hardliners in the regime. And of course the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has the make-or-break authority on any international deal. (For the record, he has stated many times that Iran does not want nuclear weapons because it is against Islamic law.)
Concurrently in the States, as Obama’s team seeks to reach an agreement, it too has been facing strong and sustained opposition from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and at home from political hardliners in Congress, the Jewish lobby, and talk radio pundits. The word “compromise” is anathema to the “anti-deal” groups, who are unable, or unwilling, to see the wisdom of keeping diplomacy going in order to bring this cliffhanger to an equitable agreement.
I wrote several posts, beginning here, about the serious ramifications that followed for many years after the George W. Bush administration’s diplomatic snub of Iran in 2003. When Iran reached out to the United States in 2003, Iran had a reform-minded president, Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, and a foreign policy team that sought, under Khatami’s leadership, cooperation with America and the rest of the West. The Bush White House rudely nixed further progress on that.
Now that the two states have been holding high-level talks for more than a year, a fair and just agreement must not be lost by the two president’s caving in at the last minute to the opposition groups.
If an agreement cannot be reached by the November 24 deadline, the talks should be extended to iron out the minutia. If an agreement is not reached and the talks end sans an extension, potential for cooperation between the West and Iran may be set back for years if not for decades.
Worse, hardliners in the U.S. who have been calling for bombing Iran may then get their way. If so, the hardliners in Iran will have the excuse they have been waiting for, as they had in 2003 with Khatami, to blackball the moderate Rouhani and install another Ahmadinejad. Worse still, you won’t like the blowback to the bombing.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Outside the meeting rooms of power, we ordinary mortals can feel so helpless in these situations. But there is an old saying: Prayer changes things. If you are a praying person, pray that the two presidents will succeed.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Willi Heidelbach (permission via Creative Commons)