Suddenly, a shift in circumstances in Iran has created a new opportunity to resolve a dangerous impasse over that country’s nuclear program. The Obama administration should move swiftly to test whether Iran’s relatively moderate president-elect is serious about brokering a deal over the program.
As Hassan Rowhani prepares to take office as president, ever-tighter sanctions are making it clear how much the country has to lose by refusing to curb the program. Iran’s economy is actually shrinking. Its oil exports are half of what they were in 2011. Its currency, the rial, has lost half its value. On Monday, another round of sanctions hit foreign companies that sell auto parts to Iran, and foreign banks that use the rial. Iranian automakers, already on the verge of bankruptcy, are begging for a government bailout.
The recent presidential election underscored the impact of the sanctions. Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator widely viewed as the favorite, lost after being criticized on the campaign trail for his failure to produce a nuclear deal with the West. Meanwhile, Rowhani campaigned successfully on a pledge to fix Iran’s image and resolve the nuclear impasse.
It was the best outcome Washington could have hoped for. Rowhani, also a former nuclear negotiator, is believed to have convinced Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to suspend uranium enrichment during sensitive talks with European powers in 2003 and 2004. If Rowhani can achieve another suspension now — something Iranian hard-liners are likely to resist — it could breathe new life into stalled talks.
In talks earlier this year, Iranian officials declined an offer from the United States and five other world powers to roll back sanctions in exchange for reciprocal curbs on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The Obama administration should have a similar offer ready as soon as Rowhani takes office Aug. 4.
To give diplomacy the best chance of success, the White House needs the ability to roll back sanctions that are already in the pipeline, or impose new ones should they be deemed necessary. Congress should not interfere by imposing sanctions of its own. The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, which tightens sanctions on Iran’s central bank, among other things, is making its way through the House. Congress should delay the passage of that bill until US negotiators say the bill is needed.
To show good faith, Rowhani must clear up questions surrounding Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been trying to resolve inconsistencies in Iran’s account of its nuclear activity for years. But Iranians have refused to finalize the work plan that the UN agency needs to carry out its duties, and denied broader access to the Parchin military facility, where Iran is suspected of trying to test an explosive device. If Rowhani really wants to end Iran’s isolation, finalizing the work plan and allowing inspectors back into Parchin are necessary steps.
It is not clear that Rowhani wants to fight these battles, or that he can win them. The Iranian president has far less power than the unelected supreme leader. Even so, Congress and the Obama administration should give Rowhani some room to show what kind of leader he intends to be. The time for serious negotiations is now.