Taking the pragmatic turnhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/taking-the-pragmatic-turn/

Taking the pragmatic turn

Rouhani’s election offers an opportunity to break the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme

Rouhani’s election offers an opportunity to break the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme

There is considerable anticipation about possible moves in the diplomatic stand-off between Iran and the West. Its roots lie in the surprising result of the Iranian presidential election last month,which declared well-known moderate and longstanding reformist,Hassan Rouhani,as the clear winner. Inspired by that,almost a third of US Congressmen signed a letter to the White House last week,advising direct talks with Iran.

The June election disproved the widely shared assessment that one of the conservative candidates would win. Rouhani’s decisive lead over his rivals gave testimony to an entrenched political process that defies simplistic assessments and brooks greater diversity than hitherto conceded to the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless,with just over 50 per cent of votes,Rouhani’s reformist mandate may not be unshakeable. In the Majlis,conservatives still hold sway.

As for where Rouhani comes from,there is ample published material. His 2011 book,National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,contains details on the nuclear file as he led Iran’s negotiations with the UK,Germany and France from October 2003 to August 2005,quitting after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. His close associate from those years,Seyed Hossein Mousavian,released his own version last year. Multiple reviews of these works by Iran watchers lend insight into attitudes and intentions. Some of the comments attributed to Rouhani may indicate the shape of things to come in his presidency,even as he is bound to Ayatollah Khamenei’s nuclear policy.

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Rouhani,even while conceding that “20 per cent enrichment has,in some ways,created increased deterrence”,questions its cost-effectiveness and benefit to national security. In another comment,he avers,“Taking [Iran out of the Security Council is a complex and costly affair,” characterising this as “the biggest harm in the areas of development and national power” and bemoaning the lack of reduction in the “feelings of apprehension” in the years since 2005. His preference for the continuation of the engagement he led from 2003-05 is well known. He would have wished for the commencement,some day,of direct negotiations with the US,rather than expanding talks with the “East”,or China and Russia,as Ahmadinejad did. He is reported to have remarked: “Negotiating with the US is like driving a Mercedes Benz,while with the East it is like driving the Paykan [the Iranian car,and talking with the non-aligned is like riding a bicycle.”

His main campaign plank comprised a more conciliatory foreign policy and the need to “desecuritise” the country. He said to the clergy after the election,“No government in Iran’s history has faced the problems that this government is facing,” adding that these “problems cannot be solved in a matter of days or months”. This is hard to dismiss as mere rhetoric,since he is no outsider and speaks from profound experience in the mainstream security and governance set-up,as well as the legislature and religious orthodoxy.

Comparing Iran’s current situation with that in 2003,with more than 13,000 centrifuges running today at Natanz and 650-plus advanced ones at fortified locations,capable of enrichment above 20 per cent,reflects gains in defiance of the UNSC,but in keeping with the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards. It is a far cry from the charges of a breach of the safeguards agreement,without even pilot-scale enrichment. There were no UNSC sanctions then,but oil revenues were not as high as today,even though they are crippled by combined US,EU and UN sanctions.

Still,the US is engaged in P5+1 talks and has been on record as ready to talk at the highest levels. Senior officials from the P5+1 met in Brussels earlier this month,envisaging the resumption of talks with a new Iranian team. Washington appears to be open to direct talks with Iran,especially since Rouhani has sent a similar message. Notwithstanding Israel’s warnings,few in Europe or America contemplate a military strike. Russia and China have lately supported Iran within the UNSC on,for instance,the missiles issue.

The barriers to external engagement lie in Khamenei’s recent charge that the West is inflexible and his general emphasis on the removal of sanctions and Iran’s right to enrichment. US officials cautiously noted the tone of Rouhani’s campaign,especially his public critique of previous negotiator Saeed Jalili’s record. What kind of relaxation in sanctions may elicit from Iran the “stop-shut-and-ship” actions — shorthand,more or less,for the West’s demand for a freeze on the centrifuges at Natanz,shutting down 20 per cent or higher enrichment in Fordow,and shipping out or converting enriched uranium into metal fuel,all under the aegis of the IAEA? The hardliners who control the Majlis acquiesced in Rouhani’s win but,it is worth recalling,had overturned his position in 2003-04 on observing the IAEA additional protocols. They would expect tangible gains.

Moderation and flexibility in the US approach,as advised by eminent former diplomats,the forthcoming attitude of the US leadership and the tempering of the “all-options-are-on-the-table” kind of language are the positives,pitted against widening and stiffer economic sanctions,revelations about the Stuxnet attack on Iranian centrifuges and the IAEA’s overplaying of sticking points. Will signs of pragmatism on both sides encourage creative diplomacy,rather than coercion?

The writer is a former ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna