Are the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, taking the United States for a ride? Have they agreed to an interim deal on enrichment as part of a master plan to lull the West into a false sense of security so that they can reverse course after eviscerating crippling sanctions? And what’s up with their “charm offensive” in the United Nations, Europe, and even the Gulf?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t buying this for a New York minute. Neither is the House of Saud. Nor many on Capitol Hill, who are rallying behind legislation championed by Senators Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk that would have the practical effect of stymieing a more comprehensive nuclear deal by linking it to a long charge sheet of Tehran’s misbehavior.
All of which reminds me of the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and the skepticism that accompanied his strange, un-Soviet-like pronouncements. Gorbachev’s accession to power was inconceivable without the track record of his predecessors, Andropov and Chernenko. Obama in the White House? Impossible without George W. Bush. The amazing Pope Francis was preceded by the disheartening Pope Benedict. Major course corrections sometimes require big messes. You’ve got to be in bad shape before trying to turn the corner. One definition of rock bottom is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Reagan and Bush administrations were initially caught off-guard by Gorbachev’s rhetorical flourishes and diplomatic initiatives. US intelligence community assessments, shaped by its top two resident Sovietologists, CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates and National Intelligence Officer Fritz Ermarth, were deeply skeptical of Gorbachev. Secretary of State George Shultz had to butt heads with the CIA repeatedly over these assessments. He wrote in his memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, that “Our knowledge of the Kremlin was thin… [and the CIA] was usually wrong.”
After yet another Gorbachev signal – a promise to stop arming the Nicaraguan Sandinistas – Bush’s White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, characterized Gorbachev as a “drugstore cowboy.” Most Americans were unfamiliar with the term, but its inference was plain: he was a phony who merely dressed and talked the part of Mr. Reasonable.
After a few months of drift, President Reagan embraced the challenge of engaging Gorbachev fully, despite his significant domestic obstacles and despite disturbing Soviet policies that Gorbachev couldn’t immediately tackle.
Now fast forward to Rouhani. Here are some passages from his recent commentary, “What Iran Wants in 2014:”
When I campaigned to become President of Iran, I promised to balance realism and the pursuit of the Islamic Republic’s ideals – and won Iranian voters’ support by a large margin. By virtue of the popular mandate that I received, I am committed to moderation and common sense, which is now guiding all of my government’s policies. That commitment led directly to the interim international agreement reached in November in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program. It will continue to guide our decision-making in 2014.
Indeed, in terms of foreign policy, my government is discarding extreme approaches. We seek effective and constructive diplomatic relations and a focus on mutual confidence-building with our neighbors and other regional and international actors, thereby enabling us to orient our foreign policy toward economic development at home. To this end, we will work to eliminate tensions in our foreign relations and strengthen our ties with traditional and new partners alike. This obviously requires domestic consensus-building and transparent goal-setting – processes that are now underway.
This is remarkable language for a national leader who faces intense and perhaps disabling domestic opposition. He and Foreign Minister Zarif – who is playing the part of Eduard Shevardnadze – are going out on a limb at a time when many on Capitol Hill are reaching for chainsaws.
Their vehicle is the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act which, as advertised in the Washington Post by its co-sponsor, Chairman of Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez, “guarantees immediate additional sanctions if Iran breaches its diplomatic commitments.” An analysis of this proposed legislation by Edward Levine identifies some of its trap doors:
Section 301(a)(2)(I) requires the President to certify, in order to suspend application of the new sanctions, that “Iran has not conducted any tests for ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 500 kilometers.”
Section 301(a)(2)(H) requires the President also to certify that “Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world.”
Section 301(a)(2)(F) requires the President to certify that the United States seeks an agreement “that will dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure.” But while Iran may agree in the end to dismantle some of its nuclear infrastructure, there is no realistic chance that it will dismantle all of its uranium enrichment capability.
Section 301(a)(3), regarding a suspension of sanctions beyond 180 days, adds the requirement that an agreement be imminent under which “Iran will…dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure…and other capabilities critical to the production of nuclear weapons.” This raises the same concerns as does the paragraph just noted, plus the new question of what those “other capabilities” might be. At a minimum, such ill-defined requirements invite future partisan attacks on the President.
Section 301(a)(4) reimposes previously suspended sanctions if the President does not make the required certifications. This paragraph applies not only to the sanctions mandated by this bill, but also to “[a]ny sanctions deferred, waived, or otherwise suspended by the President pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action or any agreement to implement the Joint Plan of Action.” Thus, it moves the goalposts even for the modest sanctions relief that the United States is currently providing to Iran.
As admirable as these objectives are, Tehran does not accept them as breaches of “its diplomatic commitments.” Whatever progress toward their achievement may unfold lies in reaching a more comprehensive nuclear deal, not in disrupting and linking it to the entire panoply of issues now bedeviling US-Iran relations. President Reagan focused on deals with Gorbachev to reduce nuclear capabilities without linking them to shenanigans in the Horn of Africa or to the resolution of unilateral US interpretations of Soviet arms control commitments.
Political leaders usually don’t take big risks seeking interim deals only to torpedo more consequential ones. The torpedoing is instead done by onlookers who feel deeply uncomfortable with the shape of the new and by well-meaning or crafty politicians looking to score points while passing the buck for the messes they create.
It’s way too soon to argue that Rouhani is an Iranian version of Gorbachev. But they have embraced similar rhetoric to challenge stereotypes. Rouhani may well meet Gorbachev’s fate, as well. In this event, Iran, unlike the Soviet Union, won’t fall apart. It will instead revert to the familiar.