President Barack Obama has never given up on reaching an accommodation on Iran’s suspect nuclear program through direct negotiations with Tehran – notwithstanding the many fiascos of the past decade.
In the first weekend of June, therefore, the US administration was at it again. Its negotiators faced representatives of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a secret venue just days before Iran elected Hassan Rouhani as its next president on June 14.
Contrary to the views of many Western experts and intelligence analysts, Khamenei’s preferred choice as president was not the hard-line nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Indeed, the crafty Iranian leader got exactly the election result he wanted. His motives for choosing Rouhani may best be understood by reading the memoir the new president published a year ago, elaborating on his views about how nuclear diplomacy should be managed. (This book is discussed in a separate article in this issue.)
His election gave Khameini the means for reverting to the era of former president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), under whom Rouhani served as senior nuclear negotiator with the West more than a decade ago (2003-2005).
The new Iranian president is one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic of Iran and deeply embedded in its regime. And although he faded from the public eye in recent years, he still held several important positions.
From 1980-2000, he was a parliamentarian. From 1991, he served as a member of the powerful Guardian Council and Director of its Center for Strategic Studies. Since 1999, he has also served on the Expediency Council which oversees the Supreme Leader. He has also held a number of security posts including Chairman of the Majlis Defense Committee (1985-1989), Deputy Commander of the Iran-Iraq war (1988-1989) and Supreme Commander of Iranian Civil Defense (1985-1990).
Rouhani’s commitment to Khameini and his nuclear goals is absolute
His most prominent position was Secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security (1989-2005).
In that capacity he was a senior partner in managing Iran’s nuclear relations with the West and led Tehran’s decision to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in 2003.
Up until his election, he still acted as Khamenei’s representative on that Council for National Security.
His loyalty to the supreme leader and the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran is absolute – as is his commitment to Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Therefore, the optimistic view that his election denoted cracks in the hard shell of the Islamic regime and the onset of a new age of liberalism and democracy is misplaced.
Through Rouhani, Khamenei presented the Obama administration with a flexible negotiating partner capable of maneuvering between short-term nuclear concessions for easing sanctions and safeguarding Iran’s capacity to put its nuclear program back on track at the right moment and advancing towards building a nuclear arsenal.
On Sunday night June 16, after the election was in the bag, Khamenei and Rouhani put their heads together on tactics for continuing direct negotiations with the Americans.
In Washington, top White House foreign policy aides said Iran’s new president would be pressed to resume the nuclear the negotiations which broke down in the spring.
US and Iran agree on a loose general outline
Monday, the Iranian president-elect, in his first press conference, stated that his country would not stop enriching uranium, but "for the sake of settling the nuclear dispute, I will first show more transparency for strengthening trust (with the world) and whenever the trust is tarnished, I will try to rebuild it again."
By these words, Rouhani assumed the reins of nuclear negotiations and indicated that any trip to Washington to discuss the issue with President Obama would be undertaken by himself.
DEBKA Weekly's sources in Washington report that the Obama administration is very close to full disclosure on its bilateral talks with Iran, and Tehran is prepared.
Those sources report that the two sides have so far drafted a general outline of an accord for resolving their nuclear dispute. It is based on the following principles:
1. Iran will stop enriching uranium up to the 20 percent level which brings it close to weapons grade, while continuing enrichment up to the 5 percent level, although limits have yet to be set for amounts.
2. Iran will open its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspectors.
Iran has never admitted to running a secret weapons program. Therefore, it is unlikely that the statement by Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama's chief of staff to CBS, that all the steps made by the US would require Iran "to come clean on this illicit nuclear program," will be realized.
Obama’s accepts a pre-nuclear Iran
Another corner of the emerging US-Iranian nuclear deal was lifted Tuesday, June 18, by none other than Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. In an interview on the Russian foreign ministry website, he revealed: "Iran is ready to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent."
Lavrov didn't say if it would be a temporary or an absolute halt, but he stressed that the Iranians would move towards this goal gradually in time with the gradual reduction and eventual cancellation of UN, US and European sanctions on Tehran.
The Russian foreign minister added: "For the first time in many years there are encouraging signs in the process of settlement of the situation with the Iranian nuclear program. It would be a shame not to take advantage of this opportunity."
DEBKA Weekly's intelligence sources point out that Iran already commands the technology, the components, the right amount of enriched uranium and the knowledge to build a nuclear bomb.
All that remains is a decision to assemble it.
President Obama is clearly amenable to Iran continuing to enrich uranium, provided it doesn’t go all the way to build a nuclear weapon.
Saudis and Israel feel cheated
Tehran and Moscow are satisfied with this formula. It allows Iran to retain its capacity to make a nuclear bomb in the coming years, during which time sanctions will be removed.
However, Saudi King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are fiercely opposed to Obama’s acceptance of a pre-nuclear Iran.
Because of this and other emergencies (see separate article), Saudi King Abdullah cut short his usual three-month summer vacation in Morocco after two weeks, and returned to Riyadh Saturday June 15.
Netanyahu sent his defense minister Moshe Ya'alon to talk to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Washington on Friday June 14, in the hope of checking Obama’s move.
Both were too late. The US President saw Rouhani's election as a strong sign that Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ready to transact a bilateral nuclear agreement with Washington. And he was not about to let Abdullah or Netanyahu get in his way.