Vali Nasr writes: Rowhani was widely excoriated in Iran for ostensibly betraying the national interest in 2003, when, as the country’s nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That concession was meant as a confidence-building measure to build momentum for a broader nuclear deal, but the reformist hope turned into defeat when talks failed amid allegations that Iran had violated protocols laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The supreme leader and his conservative coterie concluded that the suspension had been construed as Iranian weakness and only invited greater international pressure. They blamed Rowhani for having put Iran on its heels. The defeatist image became a stain on the reformists’ reputation and contributed to the conservative juggernaut that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005.
Ahmadinejad lost no time reversing the suspension. In a matter of days, the West offered Iran a new diplomatic package that reportedly included trade incentives, the promise of long-term access to nuclear supplies, and assurances of non-aggression. Rowhani’s boss, the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, complained that in doing so the West had rewarded Ahmadinejad’s brazen defiance over the reformists’ gesture of compromise.
Once bitten twice shy, Rowhani is unlikely to yet again risk being branded as soft on the West. He will venture concessions only if he is assured of tangible returns. This time it has to be Rowhani who gets more out of the United States than Ahmadinejad and Jalili did — and they had been offered spare aircraft parts and, in the last round of talks, relief from international sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals. Rowhani will be looking for real sanctions relief and a promise of recognition of Iran’s right to enrichment.
The dilemma for Washington is that, as a reformist, Rowhani is an outsider, weaker than Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran’s suspicious conservative establishment. Rowhani’s electoral mandate gives him room to maneuver, but that is not enough to shield him from the backlash that would follow any rebuff at the negotiating table. So he will likely wait for a signal of American willingness to make serious concessions before he risks compromise. [Continue reading…]