Speaking before the UN General Assembly on 24 September, US president Barack Obama said that he was ‘encouraged’ that Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani was charting a course that could lead to a ‘meaningful agreement’ on the nuclear issue. But Obama cautioned that ‘conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.’ The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, echoed this conviction when speaking in Tokyo on 3 October. Kerry said that: ‘nothing we do [in relation to Iran] is going to be based on trust...It is not words that will make a difference, it's actions, and the actions clearly are going to have to be sufficient that the world will understand that not only will they not be on the road to get a weapon but there is no ability to suddenly break out and achieve that.’
Kerry’s remarks about Washington not being played for a ‘sucker’ by the new Iranian leader’s conciliatory rhetoric were specifically aimed at Israel whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had warned in an emotive address to the General Assembly that Rouhani was ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ Netanyahu warned that to loosen the sanctions, and to take the military option off the table, would be to cave in at just the point that the coercive strategy is bearing fruit in terms of making Iran desperate for a deal.
In contrast to President Ronald Reagan’s ‘trust, but verify’ prescription, ‘Distrust, dismantle and verify’ was the Israeli prime minister’s advice when it came to Iran’s nuclear programme. He was explicit that the only reassurance for Israel would come if Iran ceased all uranium enrichment, removed from its territory its stockpile of enriched uranium, including its near-20 per cent which poses the greatest risk for bomb production, and dismantled the existing Iranian nuclear infrastructure which could provide the basis for a nuclear weapons break-out capability, including the underground facility at Fordow (which is where the near-20 per cent is being produced and stockpiled).
The termination of activity at the Fordow facility has been the test of Iran’s sincerity as a negotiating partner that Western governments have applied in the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) talks with Iran that resume today in Geneva. The so-called ‘stop, ship, and shut’ policy which would freeze the all important 20 per cent production of enriched uranium, ship the existing stockpile of 20 per cent out of the country, and close Fordow, has been rejected by Iran on the grounds that Western governments are not offering an equivalent concession. What the Iranian government is seeking is substantial relief from the crippling sanctions that have been imposed on it by the UN Security Council, the United States, and the EU for its failure to suspend uranium enrichment as required by UN Security Council resolutions.
Rouhani has made clear that cessation of Iran’s enrichment activity is non-negotiable, but he and the new Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif (himself a former nuclear negotiator in the team led by Rouhani) have been sending signals that Iran will come to Geneva with a more flexible negotiating position. The question is whether the P5+1 will be prepared to match any such flexibility with a lifting of sanctions that goes beyond the tokenistic offer that was made at the previous round of talks in April. The sanctions that are hurting Iran are those that have been imposed on its banking system and oil exports. But these sanctions are seen in Western capitals as providing important negotiating leverage and Western governments will want to drive a high price in terms of Iranian concessions before relaxing these. The diplomatic test for both sides is to find a negotiating point that meets the Iranian need for major sanctions relief in return for concessions on the Iranian nuclear programme that puts in place a robust verification regime that provides greater assurances to the United States and its key European allies in the P5+1 that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons capability.
The face-to-face meeting in New York between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zariff, and the historic phone conversation between presidents Obama and Rouhani are important gestures of conciliation on both sides. But the well of distrust and suspicion runs deep on both sides. As a consequence, each side looks to the other to make a decisive move that shows their readiness to negotiate in good faith. At the same time, the worry is that each thinks the other is under greater pressure to compromise, and so hanging tough to get the best deal becomes the dominant strategy. The diplomatic test for Rouhani – and indeed Obama – is whether they can break through the zero-sum mindset that has dominated past nuclear negotiations and replace it with policies that promote mutual security.
A fuller version of this article is available on The Conversation.
Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and International Studies and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.