By Cornelius Adebahr, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Cornelius Adebahr is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of Tehran Calling: Understanding a New Iranian Leadership. He taught political science at the University of Tehran in Iran from 2012 to 2013. The views expressed are his own.
Iran may be continuing its global charm offensive, but the U.S. government is still having trouble selling changes in Iran policy to an American audience.
The latest example came late last month, following Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's trip to Davos, Switzerland. During his appearances at the World Economic Forum, Rouhani invited gathered world and corporate leaders to take advantage of the opportunities that the opening up of Iran offers. But such encouragement is only likely to provoke ire in Washington, a point underscored just days later when U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was grilled by the Foreign Relations Committee over fears that the foreign firms lining up to do business with Iran could diminish Washington's leverage in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
It's a compelling argument on the surface. But it is also one that belies a misunderstanding of the reality on the ground – and how the situation is viewed from within Iran.
By Fareed Zakaria
After Iran and the major powers signed onto a deal on Tehran's nuclear program, expectations were high. Over the last week, they have fallen sharply as Iranian officials have made tough public comments, Israel's Prime Minister has reaffirmed his opposition to almost any conceivable deal, and several influential U.S. senators have threatened new sanctions.
Now, this does not mean a final deal with Tehran is impossible but it does mean that both sides, Tehran and the West, need to start thinking creatively about how to bridge what is clearly a wide divide and they also have to think about how to get around the main obstacle they will face – which will be opposition at home, in Iran and the United States.
Watch the video for the full Take or read the Washington Post column
By Fareed Zakaria
Iran’s officials are determined not to accept any constraints on their program. They speak often about the importance of being treated like any other country that has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which to them means having the unfettered right to enrich uranium to produce electricity. In fact, the treaty says nothing about enrichment activities specifically. Many countries with nuclear power plants do not enrich but others do, which allows Iran to claim, reasonably, that enrichment has so far been a permitted activity. The only criterion the treaty lays out is that all nuclear production must be “for peaceful purposes.”
The American vision of the final deal is quite different and stems from the notion that Iran must take special steps to provide confidence that its program is peaceful. It would allow Iran to enrich some small, symbolic amount of uranium, up to a 5 percent level (a point at which it remains time-consuming to achieve weapons-grade levels). Beyond that, Tehran would dismantle thousands of its existing centrifuges and shut down its heavy-water reactor. Washington wants to lengthen the lead time between a civilian and military program.
Both sides will have to think hard about their core concerns.
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the future of Green Movement leaders.
There are leaders in Iran who had a great deal of popular support from the people of Iran who now sit under house arrest. I'm thinking of the leaders of the so-called Green Movement, which include a former prime minister, a former president of Iran. Can they not be released from house arrest?
Well, nobody will remain in prison forever. And nobody stays under house arrest indefinitely. I believe that the conditions which prevail inside Iran calls for peace, calls for reconciliation, more convergence, less divergence.
My feeling tells me that the conditions in the coming months inside Iran will be comparatively better than what used to exist in the past. With this, I share the hope that the day will come wherein peace, brotherhood, peaceful coexistence will be much more tangible inside Iran in comparison to years past. And I have every confidence that that day will come.
"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
On GPS this Sunday: A special program from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where Fareed sat down with three world leaders.
First, a 1-on-1 interview with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to discuss the nuclear negotiations, relations with the United States, whether he believes an Israeli military strike is likely, and what he thinks should happen next in Syria.
“Well, the people, when they say ‘Death to America!’ – do you know what they are really saying? What they mean to say relates to the aggressive policies of the U.S. and intervention and meddling by the U.S.,” Rouhani says. “We don’t want those to continue. We want people to decide for themselves.”
"All countries in my part of the world, we want democracy to prevail. I told the people, if you want American policies to stop, we need to take action. We need to make the US Understand that its meddling is inappropriate."
Then, an exclusive interview with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who discusses the economy, “Abenomics,” and relations with China.
Finally, Egypt's interim prime minister, Hazem El Beblawi, discusses his country's path towards democracy three years on from the beginning of the Arab Spring.
CNN speaks with Fareed about his interview this week with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This is an edited version of the transcript. You can watch the full interview with Rouhani on "Fareed Zakaria GPS" this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
Rouhani said that there would be no destruction of existing centrifuges “under any circumstances.” It seems he is going even going further than what his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto this week. What's going on here? Because there could be, potentially, some sort of fundamental disagreement between Iran and the United States.
That's exactly what I worry about. I think you're right. It's the first time an Iranian official – and this is the president – has laid out his vision, if you will, of the final agreement. And what he said to me, what Rouhani said was, look, we intend to have a robust civilian nuclear program. You can have as many inspections as you want, but we are not going to roll back that program. In fact, we're going to expand that program.
Now, that's a very different vision from what the United States has laid out, where they expected significant rollback of the program. They talked about shuttering some of those centrifuges. They talked about dismantling the heavy water reactor at Arak. But he [Rouhani] made clear, categorically, specifically and unequivocally, none of that is going to happen.
So I think we have a train wreck on its way here.
By Tyler Cullis and Jamal Abdi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jamal Abdi is policy director for the National Iranian American Council. Tyler Cullis is a recent graduate of the Boston University School of Law, where he specialized in international law and the U.S. sanctions targeting Iran. The views expressed are their own.
For all the problems with the new push for sanctions against Iran in the U.S. Senate, one is hardly new: the growing efforts to place limits on the president’s authority to lift sanctions.
Increasingly, Congress has circumscribed the executive’s negotiating leverage by providing only limited authorities for the president to waive sanctions, upping the political cost of doing so, and requiring Congress’s approval before any permanent sanctions relief is granted.
Some in Congress see this ploy as part of the good cop bad cop routine, arguing that President Obama will be able to strike a harder bargain if Iran's negotiators see what awaits the collapse of negotiations. But in this case, limiting the president’s authority to lift sanctions actually weakens the leverage of U.S. negotiators. It is a simple contract dilemma: if one party is perceived to have difficulties in holding up their end of the bargain, the other party can raise the cost of performance to cover that risk.
By Maseh Zarif, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Maseh Zarif is deputy director at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. The views expressed are the writers’ own.
Obama administration officials have been preening since the announcement that the November 2013 “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA) deal with Iran will be implemented beginning January 20. But the credibility of the deal – and the negotiators that struck it – is in trouble for one simple reason: The JPA fails to verifiably eliminate Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Or more succinctly, in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s words: “In Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation's will.”
It became apparent during negotiations last year that the administration was ready for a deal that left Iran with considerable options in developing a nuclear weapon. The “first step” agreement did nothing to force Iran to address weaponization-related activities or its pursuit of ballistic missiles, which could serve as delivery vehicles for a nuclear warhead. And over-reliance on Iranian cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency will be another problem. Indeed, Tehran just postponed a forthcoming meeting with the IAEA on weaponization questions.
Uranium enrichment and other related projects will continue unchecked, despite officials’ arguments that Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle activities would be halted in significant ways. Indeed, a senior administration official conceded this week that the testing and feeding of advanced-generation centrifuges will be allowed under the deal’s implementation plan. The Iranians will, as a result, continue to improve their ability to produce enriched uranium more efficiently.
By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, forthcoming in February 2014. The views expressed are his own. This is the latest in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.
The past year was a time for change in Iran. Iranians went to the polls and elected Hassan Rouhani who, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight year interlude, returned Iran’s presidency to the reformists. Rouhani’s diplomatic charm offensive, telephone call with President Barack Obama, and tentative nuclear deal suggested a new international posture. But just as important were Rouhani’s domestic actions.
During the Ahmadinejad years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had gained unprecedented political and economic power. More parliamentarians, governors and deputy governors, ministers and deputy ministers were veterans of the IRGC than at any time in the Islamic Republic’s history. Ahmadinejad himself was the first president who gained his legitimacy from time spent in the military during the Iran-Iraq War rather than in revolutionary clerical circles. The past became present, as informal networks of battle buddies from the Iran-Iraq War trenches trumped the formal political wire diagram in Islamic Republic decision-making.
Herein lies the challenge. While expectations are high that Rouhani will transform the Islamic Republic at home and on the diplomatic stage, it is not clear that he can or even wants to do so. True, Rouhani quietly moved to unravel the IRGC’s chokehold on Iranian politics, but he has replaced ministers and fired governors whose backgrounds were in the IRGC in many cases with veterans of the intelligence service, equally despised by ordinary Iranians. Indeed, extricating the IRGC from the economy will be difficult: Khatam al-Anbia, the IRGC’s economic wing, controls up to 40 percent of the economy and Ahmadinejad awarded the group billions in no-bid contracts in the energy sector alone during his administration, a position the IRGC is unlikely to abandon and which effectively gives the elite military budgetary autonomy.
By Laicie Heeley, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Laicie Heeley is the director of Middle East and defense policy at The Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Two weeks after the P5+1 powers reached a deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief, the American public is still trying to make sense of the deal.
Multiple polls, including from Washington Post/ABC and Reuters/Ipsos indicate strong American support for the deal with Iran. Yet a new Pew Research poll suggests many Americans are skeptical about Iran’s intentions, with a plurality disapproving of the agreement. Given that the agreement is so complex, it’s understandable that the U.S. public is making up its mind about the deal. But the reality is that after decades of disappointment, the United States is finally approaching a win with Iran. This is a good deal for the United States and its allies.
The details of the accord, reached in Geneva by the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, square firmly within America’s national security and non-proliferation interests by freezing the progress of Iran’s nuclear program before it reaches critical weapons capacity, while also initiating a rollback of the most sensitive parts of Iran’s nuclear program. That’s a boost for both U.S. and international security. Leading national security experts from across the ideological spectrum agree, including former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who have found common cause in championing the possibilities an accord presents.
By David Schenker, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed are his own.
The November 19 double-suicide bombings of the Iranian embassy in Beirut may have looked shocking in the headlines – they killed 23 people. But they also should not have come as a surprise.
Since 2011, Tehran has earned its karma in Lebanon. The attack, whose victims included an Iranian diplomat, was likely payback for the Shiite theocracy’s unwavering support for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutal repression of the largely Sunni uprising in Syria. Aided by Iranian troops, weapons and its Lebanese Shiite proxy militia Hezbollah, over the past three years, al-Assad's government has killed nearly 130,000 mostly Sunni Syrians.
The real question is what comes now – and I expect a surge in regional violence. Paradoxically, the international “first step” nuclear agreement with Iran increases rather than diminishes the chances that the Shiite theocracy in Tehran will take steps that exacerbate the regional sectarian conflict.
By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, forthcoming in February 2014. You can follow him @mrubin1971. The views expressed are his own.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and foreign ministers from Russia, China, and Europe signed a deal to suspend aspects of Iranian nuclear work in exchange for some sanctions relief. “With this first step, we have created the time and the space in order to be able to pursue a comprehensive agreement…to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon," Kerry told assembled diplomats and journalists.
President Barack Obama was triumphant. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
He should not be so certain. Rather than prevent Iran’s nuclear breakout, historians may mark the Geneva deal as the step that most legitimized Iran’s path to nuclear weapons capability.