This post is repeated from www.peacefare.net:
Many will be disappointed that President Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani did not meet yesterday. Even their presence in the same room would have made headlines, never mind a handshake or a few words in the corner.
But they both gave speeches. What can we learn from what they said?
It is clear enough from Rouhani’s speech why he ducked any meeting with the President Obama. While not naming its target, he took aim at the United States: militarism, coercion, hegemony, Cold War mentality, universalization of Western values, “violent discourses, practices and actions,” arming of Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons (for use against Iran), supporting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The speech lists particulars against what the Iranian regime used to call “the Great Satan.”
Failing to name it should not make us deaf to what Rouhani is saying. He is saying the United States is responsible for most of the bad things that happen in the world, from Palestine to Afghanistan, to Syria and many other places. He is worried that the Americans will seek to topple the Islamic Republic. Iran is America’s enemy and determined to reshape the region, perhaps even the world, to its own preferences.
But when Rouhani gets to Iran’s nuclear program he says things that are more interesting, because they acknowledge American (and other) concerns:
Iran’s nuclear program – and for that matter, that of all other countries – must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes. I declare here, openly and unambiguously, that, notwithstanding the positions of others, this has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions. Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.
I am not suggesting that this be taken at face value. A declaration of this sort is worth no more than the paper it is written on. But it nevertheless suggests that there may be room for a negotiated, verifiable end to Iran’s nuclear weapons option, which it has been pursuing for decades.
Why would Iran give up that option? We cannot be certain, but it seems to me clear that pursuing it will reduce rather than increase Iranian national security. Even if my friends on the right of American politics are correct in believing President Obama will not attack Iran, if Tehran were to be successful in building, weaponizing and deploying nuclear weapons, the Middle East would become an extraordinarily dangerous place. Ken Pollack may think crisis management possible, but with less than 10 minutes of warning time, no decent communications and a strong will to avoid another Holocaust, Israel will make a nuclear Iran a very risky place to live.
The main difficulty in negotiating an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is providing assurance that it will stop enrichment and reprocessing well short of the quantity and quality of material required to build nuclear weapons. Rouhani emphasizes:
…acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights, provides the only path towards achieving the first objective. Nuclear knowledge in Iran has been domesticated now and the nuclear technology, inclusive of enrichment, has already reached industrial scale. It is, therefore, an illusion, and extremely unrealistic, to presume that the peaceful nature of the nuclear program of Iran could be ensured through impeding the program via illegitimate pressures.
This is, if you read it carefully, a threat: if you continue pressuring us, we really will pursue nuclear weapons. Best, he is saying, to get the agreement you want now, so both the pressure and our push towards nuclear weapons can stop.
President Obama’s speech was a good deal friendlier, but not without an edge. He is anxious to make it clear he is prepared to use force in the Middle East and North Africa, even if he doesn’t name Iran as a possible target:
The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure…core interests in the region.
The core interests he specifies include confronting aggression against allies and partners, ensuring the free flow of energy to world markets, dismantling of terrorist networks and of course stopping the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. Democracy and prosperity for the region are not, he says, core interests, but are interests nevertheless. Stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab/Israeli conflict are his top current priorities.
When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, the President says:
We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.
This goes a long way to acknowledging Iran’s concerns about American objectives.
So there really does appear to be a zone of possible agreement, albeit one that is closing rapidly. The question is whether it can be mapped out and firmed up before the Iranian nuclear program goes so far that it becomes unstoppable.