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Can Hassan Rohani end the Iranian impasse?

Ever since the United States emerged as an imperial power at the end of World War II, it has needed at least one enemy, preferably more. For many years, the Soviet Union played this role to perfection. But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 created something of a vacancy. And after a series of auditions from possible candidates (Libya, Iraq, and so forth), Iran has come to fill the bill.

In truth, Iran poses no conceivable threat. In 2008, the last year for which we have reliable figures, the country spent less than 1 percent of the amount the United States does on its military — $9 billion versus $650 billion. American intelligence has consistently reported that Iran has no ongoing nuclear-weapons program, let alone actual nuclear weapons (of which the United States has nearly 8,000). Nor is the country’s reputation for expansionism warranted by the facts. Unlike the United States, which reportedly had forces deployed in some 120 countries last year, the Iranians are believed to be active in just two: Syria and Lebanon. And leaving aside three small islands in the Persian Gulf, claimed by the United Arab Emirates but occupied by the shah in 1971, Iran has not invaded another country for 175 years.

Nevertheless, Iran is now public enemy number one in the United States (and also in Britain). When it comes to foreign affairs, of course, it is quite impossible to overstate the ignorance of average American voters, most of whom could not locate Iran on a map. And Tehran’s theocratic leaders have had little luck winning hearts and minds in the West. Dressed up in their robes and turbans, and speaking an incomprehensible language, they make for superb hate figures.

This widespread ignorance is fostered, if not created, by some exceptionally low-caliber journalism. Let’s take the example of the Washington Post, the winner of no fewer than forty-seven Pulitzer Prizes. Certainly its coverage of Iran entitles the paper to a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. On November 7, 2011, for example, the Post unveiled an online photo gallery with the headline iran’s quest to possess nuclear weapons. Only after complaints from readers was this altered to iran’s quest to possess nuclear technology. Apparently the paper had learned its lesson. But just a couple of months later, on January 10, 2012, a Post editorial asserted: “Iran may be feeling some economic pain, and it may be isolated. But its drive for nuclear weapons continues.”

CBS, the largest and most reputable broadcaster in the United States, is prone to the same kind of invention. On November 7, 2011, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency was “expected to report later this week that Iran is on the threshold of being able to build a nuclear bomb.” The IAEA stopped short of any such assertion. Yet on February 6, 2012, Pelley was back at it: “The president, as you know, has been trying to force Iran to give up its nuclear-weapons program.” The assumption, always, is that Iran actually has a nuclear-weapons program.

NBC and PBS are equally bad. So, for that matter, are such British media outlets as the BBC and the Times of London. This torrent of fabrication has surely helped the United States to wage a low-level war against Iran for at least thirty years — a war that has wrecked the nation’s economy with sanctions and given covert support to Iranian resistance groups. One such group, Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), was collectively classified by the U.S. State Department as a “specially designated global terrorist” until last year, when that designation was yanked (following a similar move by the European Union in 2009). Even MEK’s former alliance with Saddam Hussein was no longer a problem, as long as the group maintained its animus toward the wicked Iranian government.

Of course the Western narrative of Iran is not entirely false. The country has been guilty of horrendous human rights abuses, and some of its leaders have made poisonously anti-Semitic pronouncements. Still, the United States and its clients in Europe, including Britain, have frequently behaved in a far more aggressive and irrational manner. Again and again, Iran has offered the opportunity for a comprehensive peace deal. It did so in the aftermath of 9/11, when thousands of Iranians held candlelit street vigils and the nation’s leaders offered practical help in tracking down Osama bin Laden. It did so again during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both initiatives were brushed aside by George W. Bush, who rewarded Iran’s overtures by declaring the country part of the “axis of evil.”

Is there any way to break this cycle? Perhaps. We now have a new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, who was elected in June and took office in August. Rohani has replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose strident Holocaust denialism lent weight and credence to Iran’s critics. And despite the railings of the anti-Iranian media, which has already been hard at work discrediting him, Rohani is sensible, pragmatic, and (of crucial importance) well-connected in Tehran. If the United States and the West really want a negotiating partner, he is close to ideal.

Rohani’s record suggests that he will be more than ready to make concessions. Western diplomats who dealt with him during the crucial period between October 2003 and August 2005, when Rohani headed his country’s nuclear negotiating team, say he is a man of his word — very much contrary to the established image of Iranian negotiators as apocalyptic madmen and cheats. Jack Straw, who met with Rohani many times as British foreign secretary, characterized him as “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.” And Rohani’s choice for foreign minister — Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated official known for his fluent English and diplomatic expertise — also suggests the new president is eager to break the long impasse between the two countries.

Let us now look more closely at the events that took place when Rohani was head negotiator. During this period, Iran was talking with the EU 3 — Britain, France, and Germany — and the discussions went far beyond the nuclear issue, encompassing the possibility of economic, technological, and political cooperation.

The talks culminated in the Paris Agreement, signed on November 14, 2004. This document laid out a road map for further negotiations. The EU 3 promised to recognize Iran’s right, as an original signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium for its reactors. In return, Iran pledged to “provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Rohani was so keen to close the deal that he suggested voluntary limits on the level of enrichment and the volume of fuel to be produced — an amazing concession. In addition, he proposed the continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors at the conversion and enrichment facilities.

Sadly, the European Union broke its side of the agreement. Rohani had warned his European counterparts three times that “any proposal that excluded enrichment would be rejected in advance.” But it soon became clear that a complete and permanent ban on all enrichment and related activities was now the EU 3’s goal. And there is no doubt that the United States was behind this change in stance.

According to Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the spokesman for the Iranian negotiating team, the British were completely open with him about the pressure exerted by the Americans. Mousavian claims that John Sawers, now head of Britain’s MI6, told him explicitly that “Washington would never tolerate the operation of even one centrifuge in Iran.” Straw went a step further in a recent interview, arguing that without American interference, “we could have actually settled the whole Iran nuclear dossier back in 2005, and we probably wouldn’t have had President Ahmadinejad as a consequence of the failure as well.”

Not surprisingly, the Iranians rejected the next round of EU 3 proposals. With that, an historic opportunity was lost for Europe to come to a comprehensive settlement with Iran on a wide range of matters, very much including its nuclear program. Peter Jenkins, who was Britain’s IAEA envoy during this period, later confirmed: “With hindsight, [Rohani’s] offer should have been snapped up. It wasn’t, because our objective was to put a stop to all enrichment in Iran.”

Iran’s flexibility back in 2005 is not in doubt. The dogmatism that blocked any hope of a deal 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 talks, leading to the dangerous standoff that poisons relations between Iran and the West today.

The election of Rohani offers the opportunity to resume negotiations. It is important, however, to remember the lessons from the failed talks of 2005. Rohani may indeed be ready to strike a deal. But he has been let down before, will be a very tough adversary, and will expect the other side to make significant concessions in return.

In particular, he will never give in to American demands that he surrender what he regards as Iran’s inalienable right to peaceful nuclear power. Happily, there are some signs that President Obama’s new Cabinet may be more flexible. In June 2009, Senator John Kerry (then chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee) acknowledged that under the NPT, Iran had “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.” If those same views are advanced by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, then the prospects for a nuclear settlement will be excellent.

So there is every reason to feel hope — even if it’s tentative hope. But there is also an irony here. If any deal is struck, it will look very similar to the one offered by Hassan Rohani in 2005 and rejected out of hand by George W. Bush.

It’s time we asked some difficult questions of ourselves, beginning with why we in the West have felt such a need to stigmatize and punish Iran. We need to ask why we have chosen to side with Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, after all) against its longtime enemy. We need to abandon the idea of Iran as another pantomime villain and face the fact that it is an independent nation with legitimate interests. We need to take a mature view of the world, with all its complexity and nuance, and turn our back on the shrill and risible lies spread by our media. If we can do that — and accept that Iran has every right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes — the deal that has eluded the West for decades may be within our grasp.

is the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph. His book, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran (Elliott & Thompson), was published in September.


has written extensively about Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His book, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran (Elliott & Thompson), was published in September.

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October 2013

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