Optimism for US-Iran deal peaks: 5 things to watch for

A historic phone call today between Presidents Obama and Rouhani could signal a new chapter in US-Iran relations.

John Minchillo/AP
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a news conference at the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan Friday in New York.

After 17 months of fruitless high-level nuclear talks with Iran, the nation's new president is raising hopes of big change, swiftly.

"Nuclear weapons ... have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine," Hassan Rouhani told the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24. But high hopes have been dashed before, sometimes sunk by an inability on both sides to deliver hard-liners. What will be necessary for success this time? What are the possible pitfalls?

1. The Iranians' endgame: What do they seek?

American diplomats complain that Iran has never laid out its vision for an acceptable solution at the negotiating table – echoing Iranian complaints that the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) has never stated that it will accept Iran's bottom-line demand to allow uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.

This disconnect created excruciating negotiating sessions in Baghdad, Moscow, and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

"There's nothing we seek to hide," Mr. Rouhani told American media editors in New York, noting that "40 countries are doing enrichment. We want nothing less, nothing more."

Rouhani said Iran's enrichment to 20 percent purity – a few technical steps from bomb-grade – and lower 5 percent purity for nuclear fuel "can be placed on the table and examined. The endgame is the removal of everyone's concerns, and the restoration of Iran's rights" to enrich uranium.

Still unclear is the fate of Iran's enrichment facility at Fordow – buried in a mountain to protect it from US and Israeli airstrikes – and how Iran will clear up concerns from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency about past weapons-related work.

2. The challenge for the US: hard-liners.

Getting there won't be easy. The US Congress has imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran, which today target the spectrum of its economy, from limiting oil exports – which have dropped in two years from 2.4 million barrels per day to below 1 million – to blocking central bank and financial transactions.

Analysts say Congress is "in love" with sanctions, a default policy that lawmakers believe will force Iran to capitulate. Iran has grated beneath this US carrot-and-stick approach, saying there are too many sticks, and carrots are fit only for "donkeys."

Some members of Congress "really don't want a deal with Iran," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York who was the principal White House aide during Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent American hostage crisis.

"What they want is to change the leadership of Iran," says Mr. Sick, "so they're prepared to argue against anything that would ease the pressure on Iran ... that would provide any hope of an outcome other than a bad one, because their interests – though they don't say it – are really for regime change."

3. The challenge in Iran: hard-liners.

Iran's politics are also full of hard-line elements that oppose any contact with the US, the "Great Satan," whose flag is often still burned at large public events. In Tehran during Friday prayers, believers still shout, "Death to America!"

Nasser Hadian-Jazy, who teaches international relations at Tehran University, expects relatively quick progress on a nuclear deal, but is less optimistic of a US-Iran breakthrough.

The reason? "A political structure exists in both countries which involves the hostile relationship," and many of those who benefit are in positions of power and will "create all sorts of impediments," says Professor Hadian-Jazy in an interview. "Just to see a US senator or congressman say something positive about Iran, he or she is going to pay a cost; but if they say negative things, they aren't going to pay a cost for it," he says. "It is exactly the same in Iran: If any member of the Iranian parliament says anything positive about the US ... he or she is going to pay a cost. But [not] if they say a negative thing."

4. 'Big for big': Will Iran give a lot – and get a lot in return?

Until now, the Obama administration has pursued a small-steps model, attempting to create mutual confidence-building measures that would eventually turn into a deal to forever cap Iran's nuclear program so that it could never produce a bomb.

"We have got to be a lot more creative than we have been prepared to be.... We have to go 'big for big,' " says George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The baby-step model "is totally self-defeating at this point [because] the Iranians want to know where the road ends, not where it starts.... [I]s it a dark alley where they are going to get mugged halfway in it? Or does it actually lead to a place that is valued by them?" says Mr. Perkovich, addressing an Iran Project panel in New York.

5. The nuclear conundrum: Can a solution be found?

Iranian officials have stated flatly and repeatedly that they do not want nuclear weapons and that they adhere to a religious ruling by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejecting such arms.

"That's the key to the solution," says Perkovich.

The watchwords should be "distrust and verify," he says. "We know that the United States does not trust the Iranians, but what we don't generally perceive is that the Iranians distrust us about a thousand times more, and that the leader has reasons for it."

President Obama spoke of Mr. Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear arms as a "basis for a meaningful agreement," and added, when addressing the UN Sept. 24: "We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy."

For Iran, mastering the atomic fuel cycle "is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world," Rouhani wrote recently in The Washington Post.

"After 10 years of back-and-forth, what all sides don't want in relation to our nuclear file is clear," Rouhani wrote. "We all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want – clearly, concisely and sincerely – and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action."

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