Iran extends olive branch
The natural scepticism that has greeted Iran’s new and most welcome promise of “serious and substantive” negotiations on its nuclear programme is understandable. There have been many false dawns down this road, although the comfortable election of President Hassan Rouhani in June does appear to give real pause for hope. His ability to deliver, however, will be tested when negotiators reconvene in September.
Rouhani’s campaign promises of “moderation”, reform, and a repairing of relationships with the outside world represent a breath of fresh air after the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And there are huge expectations within Iran that the cleric will be allowed to push down the road of reform although ultimate power, particularly on national security and the nuclear programme, still rests firmly with supreme leader Ayatollah , Ali Khamenei.
There have been releases of dissidents, Rouhani has appointed a moderate cabinet, and there are report of a new willingness by police to tolerate crowds in the streets. But many remain wary, remembering the stifling of the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. It’s too early to declare a new Iranian spring.
On the nuclear issue Rouhani, at his first presidential press conference, has reiterated the country’s insistance that it is entitled to develop a civil programme and that it is not building nuclear weapons. But he also made clear that he wants it to proceed “on the basis of international law”, not just a reiteration of its right to a civil programme, but an important acknowledgment of the legitimate interest of the international community in the matter, and implicitly of the UN resolutions prohibiting further uranium enrichment. This is progress.
The last high-level talks in April between Iran and world powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – failed to break the deadlock. But, since Rouhani’s victory the rhetoric has changed and the US has said it would be a “willing partner” if Iran is serious.
Rouhani warned against any interim ratcheting up of sanctions which have already cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half and have led to rampant inflation and dire economic problems. His concern is with a bill just agreed by the US House of Representatives which will strengthen sanctions and which is strongly supported by Republicans and Israel whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that the pressure on Iran has been effective and should be increased. “You relent on the pressure, they will go all the way,” he argues.
But the political context has changed. The international community must give Rouhani every chance to prove he represents a new Iran. New sanctions would simply reinforce hardliners, clear evidence that the west does not want accomodation but to destroy Iran – a recipe for Rouhani’s downfall.