When Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran's president in June 2013, you could hear the sighs of relief in Washington, in Brussels, at U.N. Headquarters, and across key European capitals. Finally, we were told, the terrorism-supporting, human rights-abusing, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had left the political stage. Finally, a moderate, rational leader with whom we could conduct business was in power. Finally, there was a real chance of securing an enduring deal to thwart Iran's dangerous nuclear ambitions.
Almost a year later, we're still hearing that refrain, thanks to the optimism that the new round of talks on Iran's nuclear capabilities, inaugurated by the Joint Plan of Action agreed by the Tehran regime and world powers last November, continues to generate. Iran's own foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has spoken warmly of the "unexpectedly fast pace of progress in the negotiations so far," even offering the reassurance that his government is keen to avoid the perception that it is seeking to weaponize the nuclear program.
From May 5-9, talks resume in New York on outstanding issues, to be followed by a move to Vienna on May 13 to begin the work of drafting a comprehensive agreement. The clock is ticking towards July 20—the target date for that agreement, and the expectation among Iran's interlocutors is that the deadline will be met successfully. A senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal in early April, "I'm absolutely convinced that we can meet the deadline," while the Russian Foreign Ministry has claimed that an agreement is within reach before July 20. Among the indicators contributing to this feel-good atmosphere is Iran's decision to suspend the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, as well as its receipt of $4.2 billion of sanctions relief, which enabled Rouhani to assert that his domestic critics objected to the November interim deal only because they were personally profiting from sanctions-busting activities.
Yet the distance between where we currently are, and what some are billing as this century's first major diplomatic breakthrough, remains substantial—and littered with obstacles. To begin with, there is Iran's history of duplicity and concealment, practices which only the most naive would think have been dispensed with. As Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told me back in January, "There is no assurance that there isn't another enrichment plant under construction somewhere else." Heinonen, who spent more than a decade negotiating with the Iranians, also warned that Rouhani is not the final authority when it comes to Iran's internal divide over the nuclear issue. Given that one of the tasks negotiators face is persuading the Iranians to reduce the number of centrifuges from 20,000 to 6,000, there is good cause for concern that Rouhani would not be able to deliver on this demand even if he wanted to.
Then there's Iran's ongoing belligerence in the Middle East—the kind of behavior that casts major doubt over the apparent good intentions of the Tehran regime. Uppermost in mind here is the Israeli Navy's interception, in March, of a Panamanian-flagged ship carrying a cargo of missiles and other weapons intended for Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. In the same vein, it's worth paying attention to the State Department's report on terrorism during 2013, which states, "Iran continued its terrorist-related activity, including support for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and for Hezbollah. It has also increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms to Houthi separatists in Yemen and Shia oppositionists in Bahrain. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and its regional proxy groups to implement foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and create instability in the Middle East."
The same report also reveals that Iran "allowed Al-Qaeda facilitators Muhsin al-Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria."
Finally, the regime is undergoing yet another crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. Visitors to Tehran report seeing large numbers of young people with their heads shaved in a gesture of solidarity with political dissidents incarcerated in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, many of whom were viciously beaten by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps at the beginning of April. At the same time, the economy is suffering: the price of gas has increased by a colossal 75 percent, while the value of Iran's currency, the rial, has dropped 9 percent against the U.S. dollar. When you recall that 25 percent of Iran's workforce is unemployed, the prospect of social unrest—culminating in a typically brutal response on the part of the authorities—cannot be discounted.
Critically, we are no closer to answering the questions that have hovered over the nuclear crisis from the beginning: Can Iran's leaders deliver a political solution that satisfies all parties? Are they willing to submit to an inspection regime that will prevent them weaponizing? On both counts, the answer remains negative, which is why all that optimism is better understood as wishful thinking.