The Obama administration is lining up to repeat, in its dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran under Hassan Rohani’s presidency, many of America’s past mistakes in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran. On the eve of Rohani’s inauguration as the Islamic Republic’s president, Flynt described to Ahmed Shihab-Eldin on HuffPost Live some of the old temptations to which America and its European partners seem inclined to succumb once again, see here (Flynt’s segment starts 12:58 into the video):
“There’s a temptation in the West to see Rohani’s election, to look at him, look at his record, look at his experience in the West, his fluency in English, all of this, [and] to see him as, in effect, a kind of Iranian Gorbachev—someone who is going to turn Iranian foreign policy on its head and someone who may even, in the name of promoting reform or change inside the Islamic Republic, precipitate, effectively, its implosion. I think that’s a real misreading of who Rohani is.
Rohani is a man who, if the West wants to deal with Iran on the basis of international law, if it wants to resolve the nuclear issue on the basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards, Rohani is an ideal interlocutor. But if you’re looking at Rohani as someone, as I said, who is going to turn Iranian foreign policy on its head, he’s not that guy.”
Flynt goes on to explain that this misreading of Rohani is likely to have a very negative impact on America’s already warped approach to diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic:
“The temptation is going to be very strong to do with Rohani what American administrations tried to do with President Khatami when he was in office—basically, to see him potentially as an interlocutor who might give us what we want, and so try to deal with him and avoid dealing with the Supreme Leader, avoid dealing with other power centers. That did not work. The Obama administration tried it to some degree—it didn’t like Ahmadinejad, so it thought maybe we could engage the Supreme Leader directly and just ignore this elected president. I don’t think that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, liked that any better than President Ahmadinejad did. I think it’s really important to recognize that this is a system. It’s got multiple power centers in it; you can’t work on just one to leverage what you want out of the system. You have to engage it as a system, and on an issue like the nuclear question or any of the major issues between the United States and Iran, decisions on the Iranian side will, by definition, be taken by consensus. You will not be able to get just one guy to give you, somehow, the outcome you want.”
Appearing on Russia Today a couple of days after Rohani’s inauguration, Hillary warned that continued American obduracy on the nuclear issue—obduracy fed by willful misreadings of Iranian strategy and decision-making as well as by longstanding U.S. imperial hubris—will preclude real diplomatic progress, see here:
“It’s hard to see how they can meet in the middle. The two key issues for the Islamic Republic of Iran, that I think are ensconced in international law, are that the United Sates recognize both its sovereign right and its treaty right to enrich uranium. That’s something the United States has shown no evidence it is willing or able to do, the Obama administration and Congress.
The other piece that’s critically important for the Islamic Republic is for the United States to ease, lift at least some of its sanctions that it has imposed on the Islamic Republic—and forced, or tried to coerce countries around the world to impose on the Islamic Republic of Iran. That, too will be very, very difficult for President Obama to leverage, because most—I think nearly 60, 65 percent—of the sanctions imposed on Iran are now legislated, are now in U.S. law. President Obama simply does not have the power to lift those sanctions without the acquiescence of Congress.”
Hillary then identified the domestic political factors that President Obama would have to spend political capital to neutralize if he actually ascribed some priority to making progress on the Iranian nuclear issue:
“There are three main areas that are problematic in Washington: the pro-Israel constituencies, the neoconservative elements on the right, and what I would call the liberal imperialists. [The liberal imperialists] don’t care so much about the nuclear program, but they are dead set against the political structure of the Islamic Republic—and so many of the sanctions that have been imposed from Washington, are not just about the nuclear program—they’re about Iran’s domestic politics. That’s going to be a very difficult nut to crack.”
As Hillary notes, “the Iranians are coming into this with open eyes, understanding the dynamics of the U.S. system.” And, as we have pointed out before, there is mounting skepticism in Tehran that the United States, even during the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama, is prepared to deal with the Islamic Republic as an enduring and legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests.
Against this backdrop, Rohani and his team are likely to use the next rounds of nuclear diplomacy with the United States and its partners as an opportunity to clarify Washington’s real intentions toward the Islamic Republic—to clarify those intentions for Iranians and for other countries:
“They’re going to put forth as constructive and light a foot as possible—not so much because they really hope or think the United States is going to turn its colors overnight; the strategy here is to try to ease some of the pressure on other countries—on Germany, on England, on Russia, on China—to ease some of the pressure on some of these other countries in dealing with Iran. Already you’ve seen the foreign minister of the UK come out and say that the Brits would be willing to have substantive discussions with the Iranians; the Germans have, too. In Russia, too, President Putin is going to be meeting with President Rohani in September. So already the strategy is paying off for the Iranians—even if it’s going to be very difficult to make movement here in Washington.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett