The election of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has been greeted with cynicism. Critics say that President Rouhani will change little. Some even suggest that he could make things worse. Yet the election of the new Iranian president is a profoundly hopeful moment. He is sensible, pragmatic, and well connected in the heart of the Tehran establishment.
If the United States and the West are looking for a negotiating partner, President Rouhani is ideal. He is more than ready to make concessions, and he is happy to strike a deal which — in all probability — would win the assent of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.
However, the new President is no Western stooge. He will be a tough adversary indeed, and expect the other side to make important concessions in return. In particular, he will never give in to US demands to surrender what he regards as Iran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear power. But that does not mean he is a fanatic, as so much recent commentary implies. He is ready to talk, and more than happy to do deals with the West.
How do we know all this? Because it comes from the horse’s mouth. We have spoken to Western diplomats who dealt very closely with Rouhani during the crucial two-year period between October 2003 and August 2005, when he headed his country’s nuclear negotiating team and Iran came closer to striking a deal than before or since.
They have told us that they regarded Rouhani as reliable, trustworthy and a man of his word — contrary to the established western narratives that Iranian negotiators conducted themselves like villainous cheats. Here is former British foreign secretary Jack Straw, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, who met Rouhani many times during his term: “Rouhani is naturally courteous, respectful, and engaged. He’s straightforward and pragmatic to deal with — but intensely protective of Iran, its people and of the Islamic revolution.”
They have also told us that while he was in charge, it was the West — and not Iran — which showed bad faith in negotiations. It is impossible to understand the nature of the current stand-off between the West and Iran without a full grasp of the events which took place when Rouhani was head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.
During this period, talks were taking place with Britain, France, and Germany (the EU3). These negotiations had a remit that went far beyond the nuclear issue, extending to economic, technological, and security co-operation as well.
The Paris Agreement, signed on 15 November 2004, laid down a roadmap for negotiations on the nuclear issue. It specified that the EU3 recognise Iran’s rights under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and that the arrangements to be negotiated “will provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes”.
In return, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear enrichment-related activities “on a voluntary basis” as a confidence building measure and to maintain the suspension “while negotiations proceed”. It was in this context that Iran suspended enrichment-related activities during Rouhani’s time as chief nuclear negotiator.
The Paris Agreement was, in effect, a deal. By signing it, the EU3 appeared to accept the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program, including enrichment, once “objective guarantees” were put in place to give confidence to the outside world that the program was exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Sadly, the EU broke its side of the agreement. Seyed Hossein Mousavian was the spokesman for the Iranian negotiating team while Rouhani headed it. In his book The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, he reports that at a meeting in Geneva on 25 May 2005, Rouhani warned the European negotiators three times that “any proposal that excluded enrichment would be rejected in advance”.
According to Mousavian, “the EU’s positive stance was taken as a sign of willingness to support enrichment in Iran.” However, it soon became clear that the EU3 had been acting in bad faith, and were in reality not in the least bit interested in devising appropriate “objective guarantees” under which enrichment would continue. Their objective was to force Iran to cease enrichment and related activities permanently. This materialised in a proposal from the EU3 to Iran on 5 August 2005.
There is no doubt that the US was behind this change in stance. According to Mousavian, the British were completely open with him about this — he claims that John Sawers, now head of MI6, told him explicitly that “Washington would never tolerate the operation of even one centrifuge in Iran”.
The EU3 thus broke the commitment they had made in the Paris Agreement to recognise Iran’s right under the NPT to uranium enrichment, subject to “objective guarantees”. At the insistence of Washington, Iran was invidiously singled out as the only party to the NPT that was forbidden to have enrichment on its own soil. It wasn’t a surprise therefore that Iran rejected the EU3 proposals out of hand. With that, an historic opportunity was lost for Europe to come to a comprehensive settlement with Iran on a wide range of matters, including its nuclear program.
More than once during these negotiations, Iran made proposals to the EU3 offering “objective guarantees” that their nuclear program would be exclusively for peaceful means. An offer made on 23 March 2005 at a meeting in the Quai D’Orsay in Paris was the most comprehensive and significant. It included two measures which would have greatly reduced the possibility that Iran could produce either high enriched uranium or plutonium, the fissile material for nuclear weapons:
i. Immediate conversion of all low enriched uranium to fuel rods for power reactors, to preclude the possibility of further enrichment to high enriched uranium;
ii. No reprocessing of spent fuel rods, thereby precluding the production of plutonium;
They also volunteered to limit the level of enrichment and the volume of enriched uranium to be produced and proposed that there be continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors at the conversion and enrichment facilities. Nevertheless, the EU3 did not accept the plan as a basis for negotiation, simply leaving it to wither on the vine.
On another occasion, Iran suggested that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — after all, the acknowledged specialist in these matters — be asked to suggest appropriate “objective guarantees”. President Chirac of France agreed that the IAEA was “in the best position to define such mechanisms” but the proposal was dropped because the US was opposed.
It is reasonable to conclude that the EU states were not interested in devising “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes”. Their goal was to halt permanently the core elements of the program — uranium enrichment and related activities.
Indeed this objective has been explicitly acknowledged by one of the negotiators. Peter Jenkins was the UK ambassador to the IAEA during this period, and involved in these EU3 negotiations with Iran. In January last year, he confirmed that Iran offered significant additional safeguards in 2005 and acknowledged:
With hindsight, that offer should have been snapped up. It wasn’t, because our objective was to put a stop to all enrichment in Iran. That has remained the West’s aim ever since, despite countless Iranian reminders that they are unwilling to be treated as a second-class party to the NPT.
This remark is unimpeachable evidence that the obstacle to a settlement with Iran in 2005 was the refusal of the EU3 to recognise Iran’s right under the NPT to enrichment. By contrast, Iran’s flexibility in this period when Rouhani headed its negotiating team is not in doubt; the dogmatism which stood in the way of a settlement in 2005 had its roots in Washington (and London, Paris and Berlin), not in Tehran.
What happened next was inevitable. Over time, Iran restarted the various nuclear activities it had voluntarily suspended during the negotiations. The resumption was authorised by President Mohammad Khatami and began just before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over from him as Iranian president on 3 August 2005.
Later, Iran also ceased its voluntary adherence to the so-called Additional Protocol, thereby reducing the IAEA’s rights of access, which is why the IAEA has less access today than it had in 2005. Shortly after he came to power, President Ahmadinejad made the most remarkable offer of all regarding Iran’s nuclear activities. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 17 September 2005, he suggested that Iran’s enrichment program be managed by an international consortium, with Iran agreeing to shared ownership with other countries. This offer was also ignored by the EU and the US.
The lesson from the failed negotiations in 2005 is that any proposal that excludes enrichment will be rejected in advance, as Rouhani warned the European negotiators in Geneva in May 2005. Unfortunately the current negotiating position of the so called “P5 plus 1” negotiating team — the US, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany — demands that Iran must abandon enrichment in return for any concessions. This is a hopeless position, which guarantees that talks must fail because it denies Iran its rights as a signatory of the NPT, and treats it as a second-class citizen of the world community.
Though there are faults on both sides, this refusal to acknowledge Iran’s basic right to peaceful nuclear enrichment remains the most fundamental stumbling block to any resolution of the nuclear argument. It was the main reason why the recent negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, proved fruitless.
Much of the problem stems from an obstinate refusal of the West to acknowledge Iran’s rights under the non-proliferation treaty, the core text of which provides the basis for all the arguments and disputes about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is a very strange, unbalanced and ultimately unfair treaty, which places diametrically opposite obligations on states. It divided its signatories into two categories, those who possessed nuclear weapons prior to 1 January 1967 and those who didn’t, and placed very different obligations on states in each category.
Those in the first category were permitted to sign the Treaty and keep their nuclear weapons. Five states — China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US — qualified for this extraordinary privilege. Under Article VI, they undertook “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating … to nuclear disarmament”, but no deadline is specified. In the 40 years since the NPT came into operation, none of these states has given up its nuclear weapons.
The second category, “non-nuclear-weapon” states, was forbidden under Article II of the treaty to acquire nuclear weapons. The “nuclear-weapon” states were allowed to keep their nuclear weapons but did not have to accept IAEA monitoring of their nuclear activities. By contrast, the non-nuclear-weapon states were forbidden to acquire nuclear weapons and were obliged to accept IAEA monitoring.
However, in return for surrendering their right to manufacture nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear-weapon states were granted the right to develop nuclear technology for exclusively peaceful purposes.
Article IV (1) of the Treaty makes this completely clear:
Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination…
If the United States and Europe were ready to adhere to the provisions of the NPT and accept that Iran has a right to uranium enrichment under the NPT, then a solution to the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West could readily be found.
No progress is possible unless the West acknowledges this point. Happily there are some signs that President Obama’s new administration may be ready to be flexible. In June 2009, John Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Financial Times that under the NPT Iran had “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose”.
If such views became the US policy propounded by Secretary of State Kerry in 2013, then prospects for a settlement with Iran on the nuclear issue would be excellent.
So there is every reason to feel hopeful that the Iranian elections can open the way to a full resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem. If that is indeed the case, any deal will look very similar to the one offered by Iranian presidential hopeful Hassan Rouhani in 2005 — and rejected out of hand on the orders of George Bush.