Hassan Rohani, the winner of the recent presidential election in Iran, is no novice, having served as a national security adviser for 16 years between 1989 and 2005, under Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. It was in this capacity that he became Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator during the talks between Iran and the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) between October 2003 and August 2005. His negotiating record during those years provides a glimpse into how he is likely to treat the nuclear file now that he is president.
True, the ultimate control over nuclear matters in Iran is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces. In the West there has been a tendency to forget this, and hence overstate Rohani’s possible influence over developments in the nuclear arena. In a June 14 interview with the BBC, British former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described Rohani as “someone we can do business with.”
Similarly, the Western press has been stressing that he is a “moderate.” Daily Telegraph foreign affairs correspondent Damien McElroy called Rohani someone whom “policy makers trust,” even though he added a caveat that they are not certain what his exact powers will be. In fact, the powers of the president on the nuclear file have varied since Rafsanjani’s term in the 1990s.
In fact, Rohani is planning to have some influence in foreign and defense policy, even if he won’t have the last word. In a June 15 interview with him in the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, he provided a glimpse into how he saw the division of powers between the supreme leader and the president:
“Decisions on major foreign policy issues constitutionally require the support of the supreme leader. I am privileged to have a long experience of working closely with the supreme leader, having served as Iran’s national security adviser during the Khatami and Rafsanjani administrations. Even during the last eight years, I remained one of his two representatives in the Supreme National Security Council. If elected, I expect to receive the same support and trust from the supreme leader on initiatives and measures I adopt to advance our foreign policy agenda.”
Given that he plans to be active in foreign affairs, what shape will the policies he is likely to recommend to Khamenei have? It is often forgotten that Rohani was national security adviser under President Khatami when Iran concealed its vast nuclear program from the West. It was in 2003 that the Shahab-3 missile, which Iran hopes to arm with a nuclear warhead, became operational in the Iranian armed forces. In other words, Rohani was part of a regime that hid its most sensitive nuclear facilities, which have served as the foundation of its drive for nuclear weapons.
Once the Iranian opposition revealed at the end of 2002 the two main elements of Iran’s clandestine nuclear facilities — a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, and the heavy water production plant at Arak for the production of plutonium — Iran was forced to agree to negotiations over its nuclear facilities with the West. It was at this point in 2003 that Rohani was appointed chief nuclear negotiator.
In 2004, Rohani actually spoke about his diplomatic strategy as a nuclear negotiator. He explained that he was trying to keep the Iranian nuclear file out of the hands of the United Nations Security Council, which only adopted resolutions against Iran after Rohani left office in 2005. He was trying to justify the concessions he made to the West at the time, especially his decision to recommend the suspension of uranium enrichment. This secret speech was made public in 2006. It was in that speech that he made his famous statement that “while we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.”
The negotiations with the West, Rohani explained, allowed Iran to create a “calm environment,” and as a result “we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” These statements were an admission of deception on the part of Rohani, what his mentor, Aytatollah Khomeini, called “taqiyeh” and called on his followers to adopt. It was the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan that produced the uranium gas which is supposed to be fed into Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz facility for enrichment.
Rohani also insisted that he only agreed to suspend those activities in uranium enrichment in which Iran did not have any technical problems, so that it could still work on solving them during the suspension, without violating his agreement with the EU-3. He sought to limit the scope of what was to be suspended: The suspension of enrichment to which he agreed in October 2003 only involved the insertion of uranium gas into centrifuges and not the manufacture of the centrifuges themselves.
By agreeing to a temporary suspension and then haggling later over what the suspension meant, Rohani diffused all the international pressure on Iran that had built up from the disclosures about its secret nuclear program in 2002. He also allowed Iran to gain time in order to make further advances in its nuclear program. Looking at what he achieved, Rohani negotiated circles around his British, French and German counterparts, even though today some of them still think they scored an enormous diplomatic victory for the West.
In his speech, Rohani knew how to make hard-line remarks about the significance of this step: “A country that can enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent.” What he was essentially saying was that his diplomacy laid the groundwork for Iran acquiring weapons-grade uranium should it make that decision in the future.
These remarks contradict what he wrote in a 2006 letter, published this week in TIME Magazine, in which he said: “A nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region.” Rohani simply knew how to speak out of both sides of his mouth. Judging by Rohani’s negotiating skills and achievements, he was less a dove and more a fox.
Why was it important for Rohani to get this speech out after he was no longer the head Iranian nuclear negotiator? After the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Rohani was replaced. His opponents accused him of sacrificing Iranian national interests and portraying Iran as weak by agreeing even to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. He was seen as being too soft in his dealings with the West.
These accusations against him after he left office will make it difficult for him to offer new concessions to the U.S. beyond those his predecessors were willing to propose. Indeed, in his first press conference after the election, in response to a France-24 correspondent asking if he was going to suspend the enrichment of uranium as he did previously, Rohani left no doubt that he would not adopt that policy again: “That era is over now.”
Yet Rohani’s election has caused a great deal of optimism about Iran’s future relations with the West. There are powerful economic forces in Europe that want to resume trade with Iran and hope that sanctions will be removed in the aftermath of his election. What is true is that the impressive support he received and the poor performance of the more hard-line candidates indicate that there is a strong desire among the Iranian people for change.
The U.S. and its allies should understand that they will have enormous leverage with Iranian negotiators and can make much tougher demands than in the past about halting the Iranian drive to develop nuclear weapons. It would be tragic if they felt that with Rohani’s election they had to reach an agreement with Iran at all costs, and let Iran keep its nuclear infrastructure intact.
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