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Iran's 'diplomat sheikh' brings new tone to nuclear talks

New Iranian President Hassan Rohani showed flexibility and a willingness to compromise when he was the country's top nuclear negotiator years ago.

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Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, June 17. As a former top nuclear negotiator, Mr. Rohani oversaw the only nuclear deal in which Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, earning him the nickname 'diplomat sheikh' and impressing his European counterparts by showing flexibility and a willingness to compromise.

Majid Hagdost/Fars News/Reuters

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Despite Hassan Rohani’s impressive revolutionary pedigree, it is his quarter-century of involvement with Iran’s nuclear program that will most interest the US and Israel.

As the top nuclear negotiator from 2003-05, Mr. Rohani oversaw the only nuclear deal in which Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, earning him the nickname “diplomat sheikh” and impressing his European counterparts as a smart and able negotiator.

Rohani “is naturally courteous, respectful, and engaged. He’s straightforward and pragmatic to deal with – but intensively protective of Iran, its people, and of the Islamic revolution,” former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote this week in The Telegraph.

Mr. Straw recalled a moment in October 2003, when he and the German and French foreign ministers traveled to Iran to forge a nuclear deal. They were about to leave without it.

“We then watched as [Rohani] worked the phones to the president [reformist Mohammad Khatami], and, crucially, to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to gain greater freedom of maneuver. It showed impressive flexibility. After a round of tough negotiations, we got a deal: the Tehran Declaration,” Straw wrote.

That nuclear history is crucial to understanding Rohani’s promises of “moderation” and recalibrating antagonistic relations with the West. 

In the US and European capitals, skepticism about an overnight transformation runs deep. The P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) has been engaged with Iran for 1.5 years – mostly fruitlessly. 

Rohani pledged that Iran will be “more dynamic” in P5+1 talks and says it is ready for “more transparency” to ease Western fears it seeks a nuclear weapon. But he has also made clear that Iran’s fundamental demands – recognition of its “right” to peaceful nuclear enrichment and lifting nuclear-related sanctions – have not budged.

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There is now a chance of “moving from the confrontation era to the cooperation era,” says Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Rohani’s negotiating team now at Princeton University.

Presidents do not trump Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decisions on the nuclear file, but they set a tone. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provocative rhetoric virtually dared world powers to pile on sanctions, and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has been criticized as inflexible. 

“[Rohani’s] strategy is really based on cooperation, on engagement and common interests and removing hostilities…and resolving every problem in a peaceful way,” says Mr. Mousavian, describing the cleric as a strategic thinker who “consults with everyone” and “argues a lot, different aspects, different scenarios” before making a decision.

Hardliners have attacked Rohani’s conciliatory approach for years, accusing him of suspending enrichment in a 2004 deal for nothing, prompting Iran to resume enrichment in mid-2005. Even Khamenei cast the deal as a mistake and said he doubted the Europeans would follow through. Mohammad ElBaradei, chief of the UN nuclear watchdog agency at the time, said the agreement Rohani struck with Britain, France, and Germany was fundamentally watered down under American pressure.

Iran "moved rapidly" and suspended enrichment within a week, writes Mr. ElBaradei in his 2011 memoir. But the deal fell apart months later because “the offer prepared by the Europeans proposed few of the benefits discussed at the time of the Paris Agreement…. Not only was the proposal meager, but its tone was patronizing, bordering on arrogant.”

Yet in a 2004 speech to Iran's Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, Rohani described how during earlier negotiations Iran was simultaneously expanding its uranium conversion work. 

“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

He also spoke then about the depth of mutual mistrust: “They think we are out to dupe them, and we think in the same way – that they want to trick and cheat us. Therefore, we should build trust, step by step and in practice.”

Interestingly, Rohani states: "In the end, we – the Europeans and us – might compromise, accept something less than 100 percent, and reach an accord."

Rohani’s rhetoric is qualitatively different from the firebrand “enemy” theme of recent years, and his election presents a “new opportunity” for the West, Mousavian says. 

“The question is: Whether the West will have learned enough lessons, and whether they would again miss the new opportunity, or not,” he says. “Will the international community – specifically the US – follow the [same] regime change [policy], radical threats, pressures, isolation, all this you have heard for 30 years? Or this time will they really go for a genuine, sincere engagement?”

Rohani will almost certainly choose a new nuclear negotiator to replace Jalili, after the criticisms leveled at the current team. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, a former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran who has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT, is reportedly on the shortlist. 

Yet P5+1 negotiators are unlikely to be uniformly reassured. Like other Iranian officials, Rohani has publicly rejected nuclear weapons, but speaks strongly about Iran's right to nuclear energy. After so many years grappling with the nuclear issue, including writing his own 1,200-page memoir on Iran's nuclear diplomacy, Rohani's views are relatively well known. 

In the 2004 closed-door speech Rohani acknowledged that Iran's secrecy in the early stages of its nuclear effort "is the root of all problems. If we had done it openly, the problem would have been far simpler." 

“If one day we are able to complete the [nuclear] fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we do posses the technology, then the situation will be different,” Rohani said, according to a September 2005 transcript by the quarterly journal of Iran's Center for Strategic Research, the Expediency Coucil think tank of which Rohani has been director since 1992. A translation is posted online by armscontrolwonk.com

“The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle,” Rohani said. “But Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has is fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold. As for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction.”

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