Stephen M. Walt

Is the Iranian President Sincere in Wanting a Nuclear Deal?

By all indications, Iran’s new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began ...

Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

By all indications, Iran’s new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a "wolf in sheep’s clothing" and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time.

Given that these are the same people and organizations that have been pushing for military action against Iran for some time, it is hardly surprising that they pooh-pooh the prospect of diplomacy now. But notice that their core position is fundamentally contradictory: They have been saying for years that only sustained outside pressure will get Iran to "say uncle." So the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions and made repeated threats to use force. Surprise, surprise: Iran’s new leaders are now saying they want a deal, precisely the response that this pressure was supposed to produce. If the hawks were consistent, they would at a minimum recommend that we explore the possibility carefully. Instead, they are trying to make sure that the United States continues to demand complete Iranian capitulation (or maybe even regime change). This tells you all you need to know about their sincerity and why Barack Obama shouldn’t pay them the slightest attention.

In fact, the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between "signals" (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and "indices," which he defined as "statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct."

More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a "costly signal." Unlike "cheap talk," a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn’t really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat’s 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine.

So should we take Rouhani’s overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn’t what they are now doing exactly what we’ve been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show "heroic flexibility," thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran’s leaders to reverse course on a whim.

Equally important is that the supreme leader has also endorsed Rouhani’s position that the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stay out of political matters such as this one. This step reminds us that Rouhani (and possibly Khameini himself) faces some internal opposition to a more conciliatory stance. Paradoxically, the fact that they have to override hard-liners at home is evidence of their sincerity: Pushing the IRGC to the sidelines is a "costly signal" that they are serious.

Iran has also taken some physical actions that indicate openness toward a deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has slowed its accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium, in effect remaining shy of the threshold needed to produce a bomb, and that Iran is still not operating all of its installed centrifuges. And Rouhani has publicly reiterated Iran’s long-standing position that it is not going to acquire nuclear weapons, thereby increasing the diplomatic price it would pay if those words proved hollow.

Last but not least, Iran has also taken some more symbolic gestures, such as the release of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Rouhani’s public greeting to world Jewry on Rosh Hashanah, the implicit repudiation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust, and the condemnation of chemical weapons use in Syria. Here it is also noteworthy that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a longtime ally and associate of Rouhani, publicly blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attacks and even compared him to Saddam Hussein. Skeptics might deride all these developments as "cheap talk," but in the context of Iranian domestic politics, they are not without consequences. Among other things, these various gestures have made Rouhani & Co. more vulnerable to a hard-line backlash in the event that their more conciliatory approach leads nowhere.

Does this mean a deal is in the offing? I don’t know. I think one can be confident that this is a genuine opportunity: Iran’s current leaders are sincere in wanting a deal, and they aren’t just pretending to be nice in order to hoodwink us. But they aren’t pushovers either, and a willingness to bargain in good faith doesn’t mean they won’t bargain hard. The United States and Iran may begin direct discussions and explore lots of options, yet ultimately end up unable to cut a deal. That effort will be complicated by the opposition from hard-liners on both sides, who will look for any opportunity to toss a monkey wrench into the process. So a lot depends on how well you think Obama and Rouhani can control the domestic politics in their respective countries and explain to the relevant stakeholders why a deal would be better for nearly everyone.

My guess is that Rouhani will have an easier time than Obama will, in part because Obama will face potent opposition from Israel, its supporters in the United States, and countries like Saudi Arabia. These actors would rather keep Washington and Tehran at odds forever, and it’s a safe bet that they will do everything they can to run out the clock and thwart this latest attempt to turn a corner in the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Obama ignored them in the recent Syrian affair, but it took a Hail Mary from Russia to get him out of the box he had been painted into. I fear it will take more skillful diplomacy and political courage than Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have shown thus far, but I’d be more than happy to be pleasantly surprised.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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