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Thaw in UK-Iran relations will depend on Rouhani’s actions, not his words, say MPs

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s new report on policy towards Iran contains no surprises – startling new departures aren’t in the nature of such documents – but does help crystallise a…

Talking terms: Iran is expected to re-open its embassy in London. EPA/Andy Rain

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s new report on policy towards Iran contains no surprises – startling new departures aren’t in the nature of such documents – but does help crystallise a couple of important features of the present posture of the Western coalition’s posture towards Iran. The first is that the committee declared unambiguously that it is fully on board with efforts to restore UK-Iranian diplomatic relations to normality, or at least the status quo ante that passed for normality in UK-Iranian relations, after the fallout from the 2011 attack on the British embassy in Tehran.

That attack led to a period of recrimination and diplomatic distance between the countries and the report gently chides the foreign secretary for having waited as long as he has reopen the embassy, the decision to do which was announced just this June. This suggests that the British government continues to face nothing resembling the challenges that its American counterpart must contend with when it comes to persuading legislators of the wisdom of detente with Tehran.

The second thing the report served to clarify was that parliament broadly backs the judgement call made by the British, American and other “G5 +1” governments in 2013 when they struck a provisional deal on somewhat loosened sanctions in exchange for intensified talks to resolve the stand-off over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. That judgement was that we cannot be certain of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s willingness or ability to deliver a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. But the alternatives are sufficiently poor that the present course was worth a try, and we must hope fervently that it can be made to work.

Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected by a convincing margin in 2013 with a clear mandate to try and alleviate Iran’s increasingly crippling sanctions burden by cutting some sort of deal with the West. He has shown every sign since his election of being in earnest in trying to see that mandate through. This is not simple – if it were, one imagines it would not have continued to vex the finest diplomatic minds of both sides for so long.

The past ten years have witnessed a marked rise in Iran’s stature, or at least its prominence and ability to make its will felt, in the diplomacy and statecraft of the region. It has played an ever-more explicit and instrumental role in the conflicts and governance of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and has seemed to don the mantle of informal leadership of Shi'ites across the region at a time when the Sunni-Shi'ite cleavage shows signs of becoming the most relevant of the many divides around which the region’s peoples divide.

Simultaneously, this period has seen the Iranian leadership come to view development of a nuclear weapons capability, or something close to it, not just as a symbol of national status and technological mastery, but also as a necessary ultimate guarantor of its security against external assault as it ups the ante in the high-stakes regional power game in which it is now a player with aspirations to win big.

Some 35 years after its Islamic Revolution, Iran’s clerical regime regards threats, both external and internal, to its lock on power as being at bay for the time being but nevertheless real and serious. The political and strategic benefits of apparent progress towards a nuclear capability speak to both of those concerns of the governing elite: by shoring up the prestige of the regime’s security apparatus at home, through demonstrating technological prowess and independence in the face of foreign pressure, while also deterring aggression from abroad. So long, that is, as the tension the programme creates with the US and Israel doesn’t prove, paradoxically, to be the trigger for a war that brings about Iran’s destruction.

The price of these benefits for Iran has been international isolation and economic sanctions that have gradually intensified their stranglehold over its fragile economy. It is this economic pain which, the parliamentary report agrees, helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. The hope now is that the brief respite granted during this year’s renewed negotiations will have whetted the appetite for a more permanent reprieve, even at the expense of significant concessions.

Judging Rouhani

This is where Rouhani comes in, with two major questions hanging over the present negotiations with his government. The first concerns intent: is he truly a moderate figure who can be trusted to pursue in good faith a compromise realistically acceptable to the G5+1? On this, the committee is in line with the Obama administration in maintaining an open mind, trending towards hopefulness, but being disposed to reserve ultimate judgement until concrete actions follow Rouhani’s hitherto mostly reassuring words.

The potential for a deal would seem to exist if both sides are serious in wanting one, and its terms are not difficult to discern. To achieve it, Iran will have to accept that accepting actual nuclear weapons in its possession is out of the question from the Western perspective and that to pursue them is to risk calamitous war. If it accepts that principle, it will also have to tolerate the significant incursions upon its sovereignty that will be required to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others to verify that its programmes remain halted short of actively building a weapon. In the context of Iranian politics and history, these would be big concessions, but if anyone liable to occupy the office of president in today’s Iran would be willing to go this far for a deal, Rouhani appears to fit the bill.

For the West, on the other hand, securing a deal will mean accepting that Iran will be permitted to possess a significant capability in the realm of nuclear technology, which would provide it with the capacity to build a bomb within under a year. The pivotal point for negotiation is therefore what mechanisms can be put in place to give the US confidence that it would have forewarning in good time if Iran decided to “break out” by taking that step.

Such a compromise, imperfect as it is, would be no small political feat for Western leaders to pull off. Powerful constituencies in their own countries, as well as Western-aligned states in the region such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, currently regard anything less than unilateral climbdown by Iran as unacceptable. Having taken a realistic look at what would truly be involved in the unpalatable alternative of a military engagement of unknowable cost, duration and consequence, however, responsible leaders may nevertheless be disposed to use their political capital to face critics down.

The second question hanging over Rouhani’s government is that of whether, assuming he does have sincere enthusiasm for a deal, he can truly deliver his country. Iran is not a pluralistic democracy, but neither is it a monolith: the president represents only one part of its political architecture, and not the most important. Above and behind him stands the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in whom the ultimate power to decide resides. Supreme though he may notionally be, he must in turn consider how the steps he takes will be regarded by religious, military and paramilitary hard-liners.

The fact that the president is the one identified publicly with Iran’s conduct of the present negotiations leaves Khamenei the space to reserve ultimate commitment on his own part until the last possible moment. Should the details of a serious deal end up on the table, it will be for him to then back or disavow (and thereby kill) it based upon his calculation of the balance of risk to his position and that of the regime to which he has devoted his life.

Such are the dynamics in play. In holding out hope that these will come together to produce the outcome they wish for, while remaining acutely aware of the scope for an unhappier endgame, the British parliament – like the White House and the rest of us – must wait, in some suspense, and see. However uncomfortable such waiting may be, there is some limited consolation in the fact that the alternatives are too grim to contemplate. This makes the decision to err on the side of patience and hope an easier one.