The election of President Hassan Rouhani has augured in a wave of hopefulness that conflict between Iran and the U.S. could be avoided. But the escalating crisis in Syria has cast a shadow over prospects for improvement. The August 21 use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war generated talk of the use of force by the U.S. that some saw as a practice run for an Iran operation or as a move to deter and warn Iran.
By September 10, the circle had turned again, with emerging prospects of a new international initiative to persuade Syria to give up its chemical stocks and begin negotiations to end the war. Such a development would have great potential benefit for U.S.-Iran relations. Rouhani’s election and his naming of the respected diplomat Mohammad Jarad Zerif as Foreign Minister and lead nuclear negotiator have created hope that Iran may be ready to work for a negotiated settlement on its nuclear activities.
TWO FACTORS DRIVING CHANGE
Iran’s policy could be driven by two divergent but complementary factors. First is the desire to come out from under crippling economic sanctions. Election results suggested that the Iranian public is looking for relief from a deteriorating economy and job market. Rouhani’s promise to improve Iran’s standing in the world and to reach a reasonable accommodation on the nuclear file attracted many young voters who might otherwise have skipped the election altogether.
Less obvious is the second factor — Iran is now ready to talk because it is satisfied with the technological level it has achieved. Iran’s negotiating team may well believe it can now formalize an arrangement that maintains a latent capability to weaponize its nuclear material at a later date if it chooses. Iran would be willing to export spent fuel, and to open its facilities to additional inspections and other measures of transparency, in exchange for acceptance of its enrichment capacity and its established expertise in nuclear technology.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Catherine Ashton, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, plans to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at the late September UN General Assembly. A timetable for resuming nuclear negotiations before the end of the year is expected. Visits to Tehran by Omani Sultan Qaboos and Jeffrey Feltman, UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs (and former U.S. diplomat), have further fueled speculation that the groundwork is being laid for a more productive round of nuclear talks.
Very recent developments on the Syria front may reinforce this process. As of September 10, a surprise move by Russia to persuade Syria to allow its chemical stockpiles to be inspected and eventually destroyed has created a new dynamic. Action now moves from Washington to Moscow and the halls of the United Nations.
IMPLICATIONS OF SUCCESS AND FAILURE
The proposed deal to sequester Syrian chemical weapons is a long shot to be sure, but it may have the effect of averting a U.S. strike. It might not only move Syria’s chemicals capabilities beyond reach, but also launch a long-awaited negotiation with Syrian opposition forces to bring about an end to the violence.
Should that process fail, there would be repercussions for all parties — for the credibility of the U.S. and the UN, and for Iran’s willingness to work productively on the nuclear file. Some believe that a U.S. attack on Syria would undermine the nuclear talks and severely weaken the new team of Rouhani and Zarif, who would be discredited by hardliners in Tehran’s complex political architecture. Iranian factions opposed to normalization of relations with Washington would be empowered.
OTHER CHANNELS FOR COMMUNICATION
Parties committed to avoiding conflict may wish to open other channels for U.S.-Iran communications, to provide additional support for a de-escalation of tensions, and to generate more diverse constituencies for normalization of relations, which have been sorely missing in the long history of estrangement. Cultural exchanges and civil society projects that create human connections between the two countries are useful and could contribute modestly to a mindset for, rather than against, engagement.
Other regional issues, such as Afghanistan, could provide potential for cooperation. As the U.S. implements its drawdown from Afghanistan, it could make gestures to keep Iran informed and to take into account Iran’s legitimate interests in a stable country on their eastern border — as well as Iran’s impressive efforts to stem the flow of drugs and to secure its borders. Steps such as these could add to the positive side of the ledger, even as the larger environment continues to present formidable challenges to the efforts to avoid war and find a peaceful settlement.
Ellen Laipson is president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center. She also directs Stimson’s Middle East/Southwest Asia program, which covers issues that include Gulf security and the strategic repercussions of the Arab transitions.