Rouhani’s reformist tone drives hope of nuclear deal with West

As the outline of a nuclear deal between Tehran and the West begins to emerge ahead of the UN General Assembly this week, optimism that the longstanding feud will be resolved is high as Iran’s new leader takes action to bring about his vision of an Iran whose people have access to information and the right to speak and think freely

By Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan  /  The Guardian

Tue, Sep 24, 2013 - Page 9

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday last week signalled his intention to lead a new Iran on to the international stage at the UN next week, laying out a manifesto for personal freedom at home and compromise abroad.

“We want the people in their private life to be completely free,” Iran’s newly elected leader told NBC News, after a string of prisoner releases.

He also pledged to create a citizens’ rights commission “in the near future.”

“In today’s world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is the right of all people, including the people of Iran,” Rouhani said.

Rouhani also vowed that Iran would never seek nuclear weapons and insisted his government had “complete authority” to resolve the 11-year international impasse over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

The bold rhetoric, backed up by a series of concrete steps taken with the apparent backing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has raised hopes of major diplomatic breakthroughs in the coming months, affecting the long-stalled nuclear negotiations and perhaps the Syrian conflict, too.

Optimism before Rouhani’s debut on the world stage at the UN General Assembly today is tempered among Western diplomats by uncertainty over Khamenei’s readiness to accept significant limits on the country’s nuclear program, long cherished by the regime as central to national prestige and dignity.

Observers of the long deadlock between Tehran and international community over Iran’s uranium enrichment voiced concern over the West’s ability to respond to Rouhani’s overtures quickly enough to bolster his still-fragile control over the machinery of government.

“I think he has significant leeway to reach a deal, but that this window of opportunity is limited. We need to see tangible progress in the months to come, otherwise hardliners will undercut Rouhani,” Tehran-based analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani said.

Rouhani, a Glasgow-educated pragmatist and former nuclear negotiator who decisively won presidential elections in June, has orchestrated a charm offensive before the general assembly, which his government clearly views as a critical moment for escaping the isolation exacerbated by his mercurial predecessor, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

New Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif was due to meet British Foreign Secretary William Hague and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton yesterday to lay the groundwork for Rouhani’s general assembly speech the next day.

However, Zarif arrived in New York five days early to network with diplomatic contacts largely made when he was ambassador to the UN a decade ago, under Iran’s last moderate government. Over the past few weeks, Iranian officials have sent signals that they would be open to significant compromises on the nuclear program that could pave the way to a deal.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran head Ali Akbar Salehi suggested recently that the country could accept the “additional protocol” of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which allows inspectors to visit sites other than those declared by the government as nuclear-related. That step is seen as essential by the IAEA in strengthened international confidence that there is no covert weapons program running in parallel with the civil nuclear project.

Diplomats and observers said the contours of a potential nuclear deal were increasingly clear. Iran would agree to limit enrichment of uranium to 5 percent purity — good enough for nuclear power stations, but far short of weapons grade — get rid of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and agree to the additional protocol.

In return, the West would lift a significant part of its sanctions regime and recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium as part of a complete nuclear fuel cycle.

Shabani said he thought such a package would be acceptable to Tehran. However, it could still be extremely difficult to reach a deal given a long history of mutual distrust. The sequencing of mutual concessions would be subject of delicate negotiations as would be their irreversibility.

In such talks, the White House would be hamstrung by most US sanctions being in the gift of the US Congress, over which US President Barack Obama has limited sway.

“In Washington, there is a question of who is in charge of Iran policy,” said Jim Walsh, an expert on the Iranian nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For the time being, Rouhani appears to have the supreme leader’s backing.

Earlier last week, Khamenei talked about the virtues of “heroic leniency” in diplomacy in a speech to the revolutionary guard that was widely seen as providing Rouhani the political space to make a nuclear deal.

Rouhani stressed the point in his NBC interview, saying: “In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”

Observers fear that backing could evaporate if Rouhani is unable to deliver swift economic improvements in the form of loosening the sanctions which straitjacket on Iran. There are clear signs on the domestic stage at least that the supreme leader has delegated real power to the new president. Iranians have seen an almost daily series of changes that add up to a steady transformation of society since Rouhani’s inauguration last month. A new pro-reform and pragmatic Cabinet has restructured the senior management levels of major ministries, especially in the Iranian oil ministry, an important lever of power in a hydrocarbon-dependent economy.

The release last week of a number of prominent activists — including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh — has followed Rouhani’s appointment of Seyed Mahmoud Alavi as Iranian minister of intelligence. He has pledged to stay out Iranians private lives and invited Iranians who left the country after the 2009 disputed elections to return provided they had not committed a criminal offence.

Restrictions on local news agencies and newspapers seem to have eased with a few going as far as breaking the taboo on reporting the plight of political prisoners or the house arrests of opposition leaders.

Ali Alizadeh, an Iranian political analyst based in London, said the government’s reforms were rooted in a new spirit of pragmatism forged by sanctions, deep social and political discontent and the weakening of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

“The supreme leader ... has implicitly restrained the Iranian hardliners and has given theological license to retreat from what previously held the ideological edifice of the regime together: [the] nuclear program and lack of relations with the US,” Alizadeh said. “Unlike the last three governments, for the first time, the supreme leader, the government, major political factions of the regime and significant parts of the Iranian people are in temporary unison over a few important issues.”

Mohammad-Taghi Karroubi, son of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who is under house arrest, said the prisoner releases would strengthen Rouhani’s position at the UN and give him more credibility. He did not think his father or fellow opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, also under house arrest, would be released immediately, but thought the steps taken by the government so far paved the way for their freedom.

Rouhani’s coups

Softened diplomacy

He heralds improved diplomatic relations with the west by an exchange of letters with US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron early last month. Both Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and Rouhani subsequently strike a newly conciliatory tone, seeming to signal Iran’s readiness for a fresh chapter in diplomacy.

Moderates promoted

Rouhani appoints a new Cabinet consisting of pro-reform moderates and pragmatists, naming the veteran US-educated diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s minister of foreign affairs. Several key officials belonging to former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s era are dismissed from posts in major ministries.

Censorship eased

On Sept. 12, Iran’s independent House of Cinema — the main film guild, shut down under Ahmadinejad — is reopened. Students previously banned from universities because of political activity are allowed to continue their education. Formerly tight restrictions on the media are eased, with some journalists reporting on the situation of political prisoners.

Women’s rights advanced

Following the appointment of Marzieh Afkham as Iran’s first female ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson and two women as deputies to the prime minister, 24-year-old Shirin Gerami last week became the first Iranian woman to race in triathlon under the Islamic republic’s flag.

Political prisoners released

On Wednesday last week, leading human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was released from jail, along with a number of other prominent political activists. This follows the easing of the terms of the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, allowing them more frequent family visits.