Will Rouhani’s election affect US timeline?

If Iran’s new president is serious about a solution to nuclear issue, he has a couple months to prove it until new sanctions set in.

Rouhani in crowd 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rouhani in crowd 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Progress is slow here, but the last week of July into August saw multiple significant developments in the saga that is Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
The US House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 400 to 20, a punishing sanctions package against the Iranian regime, which would eliminate what remains of its oil exports.
That same week – within a mere three days – 76 senators agreed on the language of a letter to US President Barack Obama, calling on the White House to bring “a renewed sense of urgency to the process” of negotiations.
“We need to understand quickly whether Tehran is at last ready to negotiate seriously,” the letter read.
“Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing its end.”
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s former negotiator with the West on its nuclear program, who won the presidency this year on a promise of reconciliation with the US, was inaugurated two days after the letter was sent.
“For Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, we are ready to seriously, and without wasting any time, participate in serious negotiations,” Rouhani said in his first press conference as president. “If other sides have the same notion, I am sure this issue will be solved in a short time.”
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Short time is relative. The US and its allies await Rouhani’s decision on who will represent the regime in negotiations, after several failed rounds of talks over multiple years.
All the while, centrifuges spin uranium faster than ever, with the installation of advanced devices across Iran’s multiple enrichment plants. Based on International Atomic Energy Agency data, the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Iran will be capable of acquiring nuclear weapons capacity by mid-2014.
Since Rouhani was elected two months ago, Iran has installed 7,000 new centrifuges, indicating that he is nothing more than a new face to an old regime, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.
The installation of the new centrifuges, including 1,000 upgraded models with enhanced uranium enrichment capabilities, is proof, Netanyahu said during a tour of new IDF bases to be built at the Hanegev junction south of Beersheba, that Iran has not changed course.
“I know that some place their hopes on Iran’s new president. He knows how to exploit this, and yesterday he called for more talks,” Netanyahu said later at a meeting with US representatives.
“Of course he wants more talks. He wants to talk and talk and talk. And while everybody is busy talking to him, he’ll be busy enriching uranium. The centrifuges will keep on spinning. ‘This isn’t a secret. The new Iranian president boasts that that is his strategy. He says, ‘I talk and I smile and I enrich uranium.’”
Among the shifts and strides, the Obama administration has remained relatively quiet about its expectations.
The US stands “ready to talk” with no timeline, the administration says, while adding that the window for negotiations is not indefinite.
“The international community is not going to wait around forever to see concrete steps,” a US official told The Jerusalem Post, adding that “time is of the essence.”
Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior White House official on Middle East affairs, said the two-step from the Obama administration – on the one hand giving no set timeline, and on the other issuing notice that time is running out – “smacks of naiveté.”“This issue has been unfolding now for over 10 years,” said Singh. “Iran is now, if it chooses, just months away.”
The new sanctions package steamrolling through Congress will have a compounding effect on Iran’s bruised economy, bringing Iranian oil exports effectively down to zero while closing a loophole that currently enables Iranians to conduct transactions in euros. Despite gripes from the American president on challenging provisions of the law – which will prohibit exemptions for companies buying Iranian oil in allied nations such as China and Turkey – the bill is likely to pass with significant support.
“If Iran indeed wants to change its policy, they’ve got all of August, they’ve got all of September,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told the Post. “The Senate’s not coming back until then. Then we have a conference. Then it goes to the president’s desk. I don’t see anything happening much before October.”
Engel said this timeline was a justification for many congressmen apprehensive about the bill – eager to give Rouhani, an alleged reformer, a fair chance at diplomacy – to ultimately vote for the package, which represent the harshest US sanctions against the Islamic Republic to date.
“If they want to show a change in policy,” Engel added, “then they’ve got a couple of months to do it.” That three-month window grants the Obama administration a strategically significant opportunity to apply pressure on the Rouhani regime, providing the president with leverage against Iran when he arguably has little left to work with.
The window also gives Rouhani time to seriously demonstrate his commitment to a negotiated settlement, in an effort to avoid the new sanctions regimen.
“It’s not the three months per se, but it’s within the next several months,” another US official told the Post, noting that “this whole round of sanctions came before the election [in Iran].”
And yet the current sanctions bill will only come into full effect in 14 months, assuming autumn passage through the Senate is followed by swift presidential approval.
US officials hope to see concrete steps from the Iranians by the UN General Assembly, but no deadlines have been set.
That reluctance to fix any timeline, while insisting that Rouhani move “quickly” toward serious action, reflects a strategy in conflict with itself as the slow-moving crisis enters its final lap.
“There’s no squaring the two,” said Singh. “They are in between not wanting to be fooled and not wanting to miss an opportunity, if it’s there.”
“You’re not going to see preemptive concessions,” he added.
And yet, the institutionalized leverage from Congress should be treated as an opportunity by the president. True acceptance of a military option against Iran would mean a full embrace of the consequences of a timeline. Requiring Rouhani to engage meaningfully in talks by the UN General Assembly in September, or by a date of the president’s choosing, not only applies real pressure on Iran but also requires the US to accept the consequences of possible Iranian repudiation.
Ultimately, if past White House vows that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capacity are genuine, this requires the president and his national security team to come to terms with the possibility of military action to prevent Iran from acquiring that capacity. And if this team cannot bring itself to set a deadline, it is unlikely they have come to accept the stark terms of their public declarations.
“The House bill gives the president a great deal of leeway,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) told the Post. “There are much greater risks with Iran getting a bomb.”
Referring to the Iranians, the congressman added: “They can’t just wait us out.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.