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September 16, 2013

Experts Consider Prospects for Iran Diplomacy Amid Syria Crisis

The alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the ongoing debate within the United States over military intervention has raised many questions regarding the prospects of nuclear negotiations with Iran.
On September 10, in efforts to shed light on the current complex dynamic between Iran, Syria and the United States, as well as to explore the potential for diplomacy with Iran, the American Security Project hosted an event entitled “Prospects for a Diplomatic Solution in Iran.” This panel included Greg ThielmannSenior Fellow at the Arms Control Association, Joel Rubin, Policy Director for the Ploughshares Fund and Alireza Nader, International Policy Analyst for the RAND Corporation.
Thielmann initiated the discussion by providing a comprehensive update on the status of Iran’s nuclear program. Thielmann discredited the current 2015 projected date of Iran being able to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons. He stated, “2015 is a worst case number the intelligence community has used for a long time, now requiring so many qualifications it is no longer a meaningful projection.”
Describing the current position of Iran’s nuclear program, Thielmann said,  “whatever redlines are drawn on cartoon bombs, Iran is not yet on the verge of being able to make a no warning dash to nuclear weapons.” He argued that the present task for the United States is to convince Iran through diplomacy that nuclear weapons development is not necessary for deterrence, or in Iran’s national interest.
Joel Rubin focused primarily on the potential for diplomacy with Iran in light of Syria. Rubin emphasized “it’s always darkest before the dawn when it comes to diplomacy.”  Opportunities are always present because  “diplomacy is not linear, different pressures and key moments combined with creativity can produce results.”
Rubin urged decision-makers, and analysts like himself, to “stretch [their] minds in how [they] think of diplomacy.” Providing instances of such creative diplomacy, Rubin referenced Russia’s recent proposal for Syria, as well as Rouhani’s and Mohammad Javad Zarif’s (the new Iranian Foreign Minister) innovative use of “twitter diplomacy.”
Another strategic point Rubin articulated is that “Congress can’t be counted on, but can’t be ignored.” This became increasingly apparent days before Rouhani’s inauguration, when the House passed a new bill (H.R. 850) that would impose harsh sanctions on Iran.  Rubin warned that several of the recently proposed sanctions (including H.R.850) contain “language that frankly would handcuff the president’s ability to negotiate a diplomatic deal with Iran on its nuclear program,” including restrictions on the President’s ability to waive certain sanctions. According to Rubin, there are currently “so many sanctions that it is hard to keep track of them” due to three decades of accumulation, in addition to multiple UN Security Council resolutions. The key question is whether Obama and his team have enough flexibility to move on sanctions relief that would be essential to negotiating a nuclear deal.
The final speaker, Alireza Nader, discussed the internal politics of Iran and how the election of Iran’s president Rouhani provides “real opportunities for the United States and its partners to resolve the nuclear crisis diplomatically.”
Although the election of this relatively moderate president was a surprise to many in Iran and the United States, Nader argued that Rouhani is not a transformative figure, is not a reformist, and does not want democracy for Iran. He is a conservative cleric and regime insider who supported the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. However, arguing against many who claim that Rouhani is too inline with the Islamic Republic to bring about new solutions to this historic conflict, Nader claims “it is because he is part of the system that he can lead Iran through a diplomatic solution.”
All three panelists agreed that now is the time to engage Iran diplomatically to resolve the nuclear issue.  The three panelists similarly acknowledged the power of offering to lift sanctions to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran.  There seems to be a growing push for diplomatic engagement with Iran. However, the complexity of conditions and the uncertainty of Syria’s crisis make it difficult to predict how future negotiations will unfold.

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