Dina Esfandiary is an Iran specialist and a research associate in the Non-proliferation and Disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The much-anticipated handshake between presidents Rouhani and Obama didn’t happen at the UN this week. Dubbed #handshakegate on Twitter, the event (or lack thereof) sparked renewed scepticism of Rouhani’s ability to deliver more than just conciliatory words during his presidency.
But the handshake was just symbolism. More important was the overlap between the speeches made by Obama and Rouhani, and the scheduled meeting between the Iranian and P5-1 foreign ministers.
Expectations were high for President Rouhani’s first speech to the UN General Assembly this week, but many sceptics dismissed it as mere words. What is needed now is for 'conciliatory words (to) be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable', said Obama.
Indeed. But such conciliatory words are a step in the right direction. In the eight weeks Rouhani has been president, the tone of diplomacy has changed, political prisoners have been released, letters have been exchanged and Rosh Hashana greetings have been extended to all Jews.
Although the Iranians have always been adept at public diplomacy, it would be unfair to say that Rouhani is all talk. The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations, or any significant interaction, for more than thirty years. The expression of a willingness to talk and meet with Secretary Kerry to address Iran’s nuclear program and ultimately perhaps resolve their differences is a feat in itself.
Granted, a meeting or handshake between Rouhani and Obama would have been welcome (and a great photo op). But it would have put both men at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their own constituencies, and made progress in re-establishing relations more difficult. Obama would have had a lot of explaining to do to his Israeli ally and a Congress that is united in its anti-Iran stance. In Iran, hardliners would have used the handshake to discredit the new president, accusing him of selling out to the ‘Great Satan’.
Instead, Rouhani, mindful of domestic audiences, emphasized that Western sanctions are 'unjust' and 'inhumane', condemned the threat of military action against both Syria and Iran, and highlighted Iran’s right to nuclear technology. In doing so, he bought time and clout with the conservatives at home. This put him in a better position to play the political game and negotiate changes in Iranian policy.
But he also called for constructive dialogue to 'resolve problems'. Rouhani outlined what Iran wanted in a potential deal: the recognition of its right to enrich in exchange for 'full' transparency of its program. Note that Supreme Leader Khamenei has given Rouhani a mandate to negotiate on its nuclear program, something Rouhani's predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his team did not have. Tellingly, Obama seemed to agree to a similar formula, saying 'we should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful'.
Could these statements form 'the basis for a meaningful agreement', as declared by Obama?
It would seem so, but the difficulty will be to agree to a deal that meets minimum requirements on both sides. The Iranians have made it clear that accepting their 'right' to enrich is fundamental. Although the US seems amenable this, according to Robert Einhorn, former Special Advisor for Non-proliferation and Arms Control at the US Department of State, transparency will not be enough. The US aims to prevent an Iranian breakout capability, which can only be achieved with significant limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity. Despite assurances that enrichment, whether at 20% or 5%, 'can be placed on the table and examined', it is unclear if Tehran will accept such limits.
Iran will also want meaningful sanctions relief, proportional to what it is being asked to give up. The problem is that the current web of US sanctions can’t be easily unwoven, especially given Congress’ penchant for sticks rather than carrots. The Iranian nuclear crisis offers the EU and others like Australia, who have imposed their own sanctions, an opportunity to step up and with tacit US backing, offer meaningful sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
Despite handshake-gate, in the words of an Iranian editorial, a taboo was broken this week. On Thursday, in the highest level meeting between the two countries since 1979, Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his Iranian counterpart Zarif and the remaining P5-1 foreign ministers for a meeting that may well launch a new round of negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the atmosphere of détente will translate into something more concrete, but once again, cautious optimism is the name of the game.