Obama and Rouhani: Strategy, Capability, and Resolve in Nuclear Negotiations

Obama and Rouhani: Strategy, Capability, and Resolve in Nuclear Negotiations

After I served on the Reagan-Bush National Security Council staff in the 1980s, my former colleagues cooked up an approach of reaching out to the Islamic Republic of Iran. As we know from the transfer of U.S. arms to Iran in exchange for Americans held hostage by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, extending a hand to Iran failed. Capitulation was the outcome of that scheme, as more hostages were seized following receipt of American arms by Iran.

Harking back to the era when President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reached out to China to balance the Soviet Union, my former associates envisioned that extending a hand to Tehran would create an American-Iranian condominium that would bring security and peace to the Middle East. But in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic had not made a decision to be a normal nation rather than a revolutionary cause.

Two decades after this failure, political-realist President Barack Obama uses nuclear talks between the major powers and Iran to test whether it is ready to come in from the cold. With an adroit use of mostly congressionally-imposed financial and trade sanctions, Obama hoped it would be possible to turn Iran away from its revolutionary zeal and into a nation engaged economically with the West that fits within the U.S. security framework for the Middle East. If Rouhani were a realist, he might calculate as Obama would and conclude that preserving the Revolution is not as worthwhile as a prosperous economy.


When the President Obama authorized secret talks with President Rouhani’s agents to create the basis for the November 2013 and January 2014 preliminary accords with Tehran, Obama thought he was dealing with a like-minded realist who wanted to turn Iran into more of a republic and less of an Islamist cause. By using terrorism as a strategy to destabilize the region as he negotiates an exchange of sanctions relief for a cap on Iran’s "right to enrich" on its own soil, however, Rouhani shows his true colors. Like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Rouhani is a radical who uses deception against a realist like Obama. And Rouhani plays to his weakness relative to so-called hardliners, which gives him one up on Obama in the talks.  


Nuclear talks with Iran give a great deal of attention to capability while the major powers pay too little attention to the nature of the Iranian regime, its deceptive practice of cheating and only retreating when caught, and use of nuclear talks to achieve strategic goals regarding the Sunni Arab Gulf States and Israel.

Regarding capability, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) compared Iran’s breakout time in August 2013 with the time if Iran complied fully with the January 2014 interim accord and allowed stringent inspections. In August, ISIS assessed Tehran might reach breakout status at about 1.0-1.6 months, as opposed to 1.9-2.2 months after the January agreement.

A team led by ambassadors Eric Edelman and Dennis Ross, stated that, "the JPA [Joint Plan of Action] has set back Iran’s breakout timing by nearly one month." James Jeffrey and David Pollock, of The Washington Institute, expand the definition to include exploiting the threat of a breakout for regional coercion. Doing so would require limitations on Tehran, they claimed, including "extensive verification, monitoring, and intelligence capabilities, inside and outside the agreement … and a credible response if breakout occurs." Because verification is crucial for deterring an Iranian breakout, there is a premium on a variety of intelligence sources and methods, e.g., satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, and human sources.


No matter what sources are used by the intelligence community, resolve is necessary to carry out a credible response if breakout occurs. Unless President Obama establishes his willingness to use force beyond pinprick drone attacks, Rouhani comes out ahead because of his use of terrorism without facing any costs from Obama. To avoid complete capitulation, Obama also might toughen his approach in the talks: Adopting "zero enrichment" for Iran would be a good first step.