Is the world on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran?
With the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York fast approaching next week, it’s a question that is all but certainly being debated in foreign ministries around the world. But given the lack of clarity over who makes final policy decisions in Tehran, and the long history of failed diplomatic agreements between Iran and the West, it’s a devilishly difficult question to answer — and answer definitively.
Still, the past few weeks have undoubtedly been encouraging. Every day, it seems, Iran has made another move that appears to signal its willingness to end the stalemate over the country’s nuclear program and roll back the sanctions that have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Here are 20 signs (and one caveat) that this time around the mullahs really are serious about rapprochement and reform.
3. Rouhani takes to the Washington Post to urge his "counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election" and to announce that his government is ready "to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition."
8. Shortly after winning control of the nuclear portfolio, Zarif opens a Twitter account and uses it to wish Jews a happy new year; in a Twitter exchange with Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, he emphasizes that the man most responsible for Iran’s history of Holocaust denial is now out of office.
9. Rouhani also tweets a Rosh Hashanah greeting to the world’s Jews, wishing them a "blessed" new year. (The only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament is also accompanying Rouhani to the U.N. General Assembly.)
10. The Iranian government eases the terms of the house arrest imposed on two opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides that their cases will be taken up by the country’s supreme national security council.
12. Iranian Internet users are briefly able to access Twitter and Facebook without having to bypass the government firewall, though the services are quickly restricted a day later as authorities claim the development was the result of a technical glitch.
16. Rouhani condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria and in a tweet urges the "international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria," though he later emphasizes that the Middle East "doesn’t need another war" and that any action in Syria "should be based on intl law, lead to more stability in region & reduce terrorism."
17. In a speech to Revolutionary Guard commanders, Rouhani claims that Iran will support whomever the Syrian people choose as their leader, even if that person is not the country’s staunch ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
18. Rouhani calls for a less intrusive state and more freedoms for Iranians, arguing that "a powerful and capable government does not mean a government which meddles in and is in control of all affairs, restricts people and their lives, and meddles in people’s private lives."
20. The sultan of Oman becomes the first foreign leader to visit Iran since Rouhani took power, sparking speculation in the Iranian media that he may mediate talks between Iran and the West on the country’s nuclear program. (Subsequent reports suggest the sultan has indeed ferried letters between Obama and Rouhani.)
The question that remains is whether these moves signal a fundamental change in Tehran’s strategic thinking — or whether they are part of a ploy to ease international sanctions while the country’s nuclear program steams ahead. It’s worth keeping in mind that Rouhani knows a thing or two about hoodwinking the West. In a speech delivered some time between October and November of 2004, Rouhani explained how Iran had been able to engage with the West while at the same time making progress on its nuclear program.
"While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan…. in fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter," Rouhani observed, referring to two key materials in the nuclear enrichment process. Moreover, Rouhani explained that once Iran attains a nuclear weapon, the West will have no choice but to accept the country as a nuclear power. "If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice — that we do possess the technology — then the situation will be different," he said. "The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold." Today, Iran is further along in that process than it was in 2004.
While a nine-year-old speech by no means puts the lie to Iran’s recent actions, Rouhani’s comments serve as exhibit A for why Western diplomats are approaching the latest developments with supreme caution.