I was originally going to write about free-trade this week. However, the spectacle at the UN General Assembly offered instructive hints about a thawing between Iran and the Western nations.
Historically, the beginning of tensions between Iran and the United States began when the United States orchestrated a coup to overthrow Iran’s elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh and the consolidation of power by the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi was then overthrown in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, which installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of Iran. Iranian-American tensions have been tense since the Revolution, such that until Friday, the president of the United States and the president of Iran had never communicated by phone.
Pro-reform presidents have been elected in Iran, most notably Mohammad Khatami, who was in office from 1997 to 2005. Unfortunately, none have been able to break fundamental deadlock in Iran-American relations. Ultimately, the current Ayatollah Ali Khameini took negotiating power away from Khatami, and ultimately Khatami was replaced by the fundamentalist, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
What we have now is a situation where both Iran and the United States want peace and stability, but neither quite trust the other to deliver, and with both sides containing anti-detente factions. In the United States, President Barack Obama definitely wants normalized Iran-US relations. However, Obama is proceeding cautiously to avoid angering opposition Republicans, who could accuse him of being soft towards the Iranian regime. In addition, Obama’s quest for peace has been complicated by Israel, most notably Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since Obama’s ascension to the presidency, his relations with Netanyahu have been strained, and Netanyahu has publicly voiced cynicism regarding possible negotiations with the Iranian government.
Before discussing the political situation Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, finds himself in, I’ll briefly describe the election that brought him to power. Rouhani was one among eight candidates “approved” by Ayatollah Khameini to run in this year’s presidential election. Originally one of two “moderates” running; the other moderate, Mohammed Aref, dropped out early and endorsed him. Rouhani went on to win a surprise 51% majority in the first round of balloting, enough to avoid a runoff. This result indicates that perhaps Iranians have had enough of the current norm of economic sanctions and inflammatory rhetoric, and wish to be more open to the country. Iranians as a whole are more affluent and better educated than other areas in the Middle East outside of Israel. They also are more moderate towards Western culture than many other areas in the Middle East.
That said, the main reason I think Rouhani can bring about negotiations in a way Khatami did not is that he is overall a better political strategist. He has spent several years inside the government, most notably as head of a negotiating team in charge of working in the West to halt the Iranian nuclear program. while Khatami fell from favor, thus paving the way for Ahmadinejad to take power, Rouhani has maintained close cooperation with Khameini. As such, he will be able to make politically more risky moves than Khatami was.
Of course, the problem with this scenario is this: the office of president has relatively little power in Iran; most power ultimately resides with Khameini. And there is no guarantee that Khameini wants better negotiations with the West and with Israel. But consider this: the value of the Iranian rial dropped 80% between 2011 and 2012, and oil exports have similarly plunged. Sooner or later Khameini would end up cooperating, lest he fall as the Shah did due to political discontent. We may be seeing the fruits of the economic sanctions that took effect 2-3 years ago.
Of course, there are still hard-line factions within the Iranian government, such as the Revolutionary Guards, who are still staunchly opposed to improved relations with the West. It will be Rouhani’s job to maneuver through the hardline elements of the Iranian government to set up better relations. Early indications are that he is succeeding.
Of key importance in the negotiations with the new government of Iran will be Iran’s nuclear program. Despite Iranian claims that their program is solely for nuclear power, political leaders in both the United States and Israel will still insist on a halt of uranium enrichment operations by the Iranian government.
It is really hard to determine conclusively whether or not Iran is in fact trying to manufacture a nuclear weapon. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranian centrifuges have only produced a handful of 20% enriched uranium, well below the 80-90% required to synthesize a nuclear weapon. In addition, much of the uranium they do have is being converted into uranium oxide rods, which cannot be easily enriched.
The proposition Rouhani made at the UN General Assembly meeting last week is interesting- he called for Israel to enter into an accord with Iran where both sides would agree not to develop nuclear weapons. Israel still has not “confirmed” that they have nuclear weapons, but it is very certain that they do. Along with Iran, they have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a smart debating point for Rouhani, knowing that the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be forced into a spot. Netanyahu is loath to weaken his bargaining position with Iran (he has repeatedly threatened to bomb Iran should they continue with their nuclear program), yet at the same time should he reject this olive branch, he will look overly hostile to the new government.
One argument made is that Israel should not make nuclear concessions to Iran. Frankly, I think this attitude is silly. Netanyahu has made threats to bomb Iran, and it would make sense for Iranians to fear a preemptive Iranian strike. Deterrence seems to be a reasonable argument, until you realize that each side wants to deter the other. This has the potential to lead to a cold-war type conflict, with each country developing increased nuclear capability. this would leave both countries vulnerable either to some sort of breach of intelligence or to a terrorist group gaining weapons.
Ultimately, I do not see the need for Israel to maintain nuclear weapons. As of now, I do not see any necessity for Israel to even use nuclear weapons. First off, Israel has already proved itself quite dangerous with conventional weapons. Secondly, any nuclear attack upon Israel would almost certainly result in the full annihilation and overthrow of the government of the perpetrating country. Thirdly, if Israel was foolhardy enough to preemptively strike via nuclear weapons, they would become a pariah state, even more than North Korea is. A deterrent force should not require 2-3 weapons. Each one is capable of annihilating a city. There is absolutely no need for Israel to develop more, let alone keep most of the weapons they currently own. It would be a massive image-building move in the international community, and would put the onus on Iran to follow through with their pledge to not make nuclear weapons.
What is my solution to the Iran situation? Make it very clear that the US will continue sanctions until the Iran nuclear program has been dealt with. However, we must also do everything possible to come to a solution to the nuclear situation. Let Netanyahu know that if he becomes the extreme party he will be treated as such. And let Rouhani and Khameini know that the US does not expect to be hoodwinked.