With the whirlwind of meetings and declarations in which the newly elected Iranian president has embarked during his visit in New York, we have attended a kind of wild week, crowned by the historical telephone call between Obama and Rouhani. But the euphoria created by the visible thaw between Iran and the outer world having now somehow subsided, we have to admit that this whole set of events remained within the realm of declarations of good intentions. There is still to get to the heart of the matters, and therefore to the heart of the nuclear file.
And there, Rouhani needs a quick success. He has been elected on the promise that he would loosen the noose of sanctions which strangles the Iranian population. At this juncture, the Americans and the Europeans hold his fate in their hands. Either one sees good progress in the negotiation, the sanctions are reduced, the economy rebounds. In that case, Rouhani’s popularity strengthens, and he gets the upper hand within the Islamic republic’s system in order to address Iran’s other disputes with the outer world. Or the negotiation drags on, the Iranian economy falls deeper into depression, popular disappointment sets in. Conservative factions, defeated in the presidential election but still powerful in the parliament and in the inner core of the regime, regain courage, and engage in guerilla against the government. Rouhani being weakened, Iran enters anew a course of confrontation against its familiar adversaries: the West, Israel, the Arab kingdoms…
In order to help Rouhani demonstrate that he has made the right choice when betting on openness and engagement, one gesture is needed : to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment. In exchange of what Tehran is ready to give all necessary guarantees to alleviate the world’s worries : enhanced international controls, enrichment capped at 5%. This percentage is sufficient for industrial uses, but at comfortable distance from the 90% necessary for a nuclear explosive device.
We are still far from this point. As Obama himself recalled at the United Nations, Americans and Europeans maintain their demand that Iran comply with the Security Council requirements, which means suspending its enrichment activities. Such a demand is unacceptable for Iran, as we have known since it has been adopted in 2006. Rouhani himself said it a little while after his election. When he was negotiating on the nuclear file between 2003 and 2005, he accepted a first suspension, gaining nothing in exchange. He has been bitterly criticized by his opponents for such a move, and the critics have not subsided. To order again such a suspension would be for him a political suicide.
By convincing the Security Council to adopt a decision of limited interest, except for pressuring Iran into the termination of its enrichment activities, we have fallen into our own trap. In its resolution, the Council expressed the conviction that such a suspension would contribute to a negotiated solution. But this requirement, by hindering the progress of the negotiation, has produced the opposite effect. Time has come to admit it. And more broadly, it is not serious to ask Rouhani, as it has often been heard, to make the “first steps“ without disclosing what we would be willing to offer in exchange. No political leader anywhere in the world would accept to make a significant concession without being able to present to his public the corresponding benefits. Let us hope that this consideration of common sense will be kept in mind during the forthcoming negotiations. To achieve some progress, “first steps” have to come from both sides, and be simultaneous.