By: Alon Ben – Meir, Professor of Political Science
Reliable sources claim that the election of Rouhani as President of Iran opens an opportunity for direct talks between the U.S. and Iran, in an effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute.
The Obama administration must look for ways to have direct contacts with Iran and try to end the dispute before another conflagration spreads to the Middle East, with devastating consequences. Rouhani is a western-educated clergyman, deeply involved in all walks of government, and has extensive contacts with senior government officials. He enjoys the confidence of Ali Khamenei, and knows what can be gained by reaching an agreement. He is an experienced negotiator and has been credited with many achievements. Rouhani has pledged to act "in a moderate way" and with the greatest transparency regarding Iran's nuclear program. He insisted that "the only form of interaction with Iran is in the framework of a dialogue on equal, respectful footing, with the aim to building mutual trust….Do not use … the language of sanctions, but the language of dialogue and mutual respect."
To highlight the seriousness of his intentions to negotiate – Rouhani has appointed a Western-oriented team, which includes Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who speaks English well, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Denver, and served as Iran's ambassador to the UN. The White House welcomed the outcome of the presidential elections in Iran: "The appointment of President Rouhani gives Iran the opportunity to act quickly to resolve its nuclear program, a source of deep concern in the international community."
I favor direct negotiations. The United States must exhaust every option before taking military steps, especially in view of the fact that Iran at a crossroads, and might agree to compromise without losing honor.
Four key factors might drive Iran to put an end to the nuclear issue:
1. The new president promised to focus on the economy of Iran, which has deteriorated mainly because of the damages caused by international sanctions. Rouhani understands that a solution to Iran's economic problems lies in lesser sanctions and ultimately – their abolishment;
2. In the midst of Middle East unrests, Tehran wants to maintain its influence in Syria, and continue to be a major player in the region. Rouhani understands that as long as there is a nuclear problem, the U.S. will continue to sabotage Iran's interests;
3. Iran aims to put an end to international isolation, and there is no way to remedy it, except finding a solution to the nuclear issue;
4. Iranian clerics want to stay in power. As long the nuclear issue is simmering, they worry about U.S. intentions.
Thirty national security experts signed a manifesto addressed to President Obama – stressing that Rouhani's appointment opens "a golden opportunity to renew diplomatic efforts to unlock the stalemate on Iran's nuclear program." The American administration must prove to its citizens that it will take all possible diplomatic steps in this direction, especially in view of its hesitant approach to the Syrian crisis. Direct talks will benefit from the support of the European community. The talks will also constitute a clear message to Russia and China that the U.S. is still an influential power in the Middle East. It will also contribute to rehabilitate a sense of national security in Arab countries.
The gulf states, especially those with a Sunni majority, perceive the Iranian nuclear conflict in the context of a Sunni – Shiite conflict, and expect the U.S. to avoid this risk. As for Israel – only the United States can convince Israel that only direct talks can help determine the true position of Iran on the nuclear issue. It is the duty of Netanyahu to set the agenda for solving the problem. Should the talks lead to an agreement, acceptable to Israel, it would save it from a significant military action with unforeseeable consequences. Should the talks fail, Israel would gain the moral right to take all necessary measures to protect itself.
To improve the chances of a successful outcome, the talks must be conducted based on strict procedures. They should not be held for more than a period of four months, during which further sanctions should be avoided. The legislation that led to the deepening of restrictions on the Iranian oil sector was the wrong move at the wrong time.
Tehran will not withdraw completely from its sovereign "right" to enrich uranium. It raises the question as to the circumstances under which the US could allow Iran to maintain facilities to enrich uranium, and whether the U.S. would guarantee her that possibility. The US might envisage steps to facilitate Iranian maintenance of such facilities, under careful monitoring. In a letter to "Time" Magazine in 2006, Rouhani noted that "Iran … will agree to the terms of a continued presence of inspectors to ensure the credibility that there has been no change."
The issue of the Iranian nuclear program can be resolved peacefully through negotiations between the USA and Iran. Both parties understand that failure could lead to disastrous results. Circumstances are ripe. The opportunity exists. One must only pick up the gauntlet.