Iran: President Rouhani At Risk If Nuclear Talks Fail

02/07/2015 11:10 am ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

By Parisa Hafezi and Louis Charbonneau

ANKARA/NEW YORK, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Iran's foreign minister has warned the United States that failure to agree a nuclear deal would likely herald the political demise of pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian officials said, raising the stakes as the decade-old stand-off nears its end-game.

Mohammad Javad Zarif pressed the concern with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at several meetings in recent weeks, according to three senior Iranian officials, who said Iran had also raised the issue with other Western powers. Zarif's warning has not been previously reported.

In a statement posted on the Iranian Foreign Ministry's website, Zarif later denied discussing domestic issues with Western officials.

Western officials acknowledged the move may be just a negotiating tactic to persuade them to give more ground, but said they shared the view that Rouhani's political clout would be heavily damaged by the failure of talks.

The warning that a breakdown in talks would empower Iran's conservative hardliners comes as the 12-year-old stand-off reaches a crucial phase, with a March deadline to reach a political agreement ahead of a final deal by June 30.

The agreement aims to end sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program, though hard-to-bridge differences remain, particularly on the timing of the relief on economic sanctions and the duration of the deal.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Rouhani, who Iranian officials say has staked his career on the deal, are facing stiff domestic opposition to an agreement, narrowing the scope for compromise.

The Iranian officials who spoke to Reuters said Zarif had raised the concern over Rohani's fate with Kerry. The two men have met repeatedly in recent weeks in an attempt to break the impasse, most recently on Friday when they talked for over an hour on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference .

"As Rouhani is on the frontline, naturally he will be more harmed," said one of the officials, who has direct knowledge of Zarif's discussions with Kerry.

Other Western officials said the Iranian delegation had raised the same concern in talks recently. If the talks fail, Rouhani would likely be sidelined and his influence dramatically reduced, giving hardliners like Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps an upper hand, Iranian officials and Western analysts say.

However, a senior U.S. official denied that Zarif had issued any such warning about Rouhani.

"We'll leave assessment of Iranian politics to the Iranians but this rumor is untrue," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry website quoted Zarif as saying: "Domestic issues were never raised with foreign officials during any of the meetings."


A comprehensive nuclear deal is seen as crucial to reducing the risk of a wider Middle East war, at a time when Iran is deeply involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq. After nearly a year of talks, negotiators failed for the second time in November to meet a self-imposed deadline for an agreement.

Iran rejects allegations it is developing the capability to produce atomic weapons. But it has refused to halt uranium enrichment and other sensitive atomic work, leading to U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions that have hobbled its economy.

One of the Iranian officials, who also had direct access to the talks, said the Americans were talking in terms of years for the sanctions relief while Iran wanted curbs on oil and banking to be lifted within six months.

Rouhani was elected in 2013 on promises of ending Western sanctions, improving the economy and reducing Iran's diplomatic isolation.

But he faces a worsening power struggle with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said Iran should immunize itself against sanctions, suggesting he is prepared to live with them. Khamenei has the final word on any deal.

Rouhani has said Iran needs to end its isolation to help its economy, which has also been hit hard by plunging oil prices.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are suspicious of the U.S. decision to engage with Iran on the nuclear issue. Israel has threatened to use military force against Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to contain the threat it feels Tehran poses.

The United States, officials familiar with the talks say, has already compromised on the issue of how many centrifuges Iran would be allowed to operate.

Obama could temporarily suspend many of the harshest unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran but permanent removal would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, where there is little appetite for sanctions relief.

The Senate is finalizing a bill for tougher sanctions if there is no final nuclear deal by June 30. Obama has vowed to veto any new Iran sanctions bill.

Another Western official said Rouhani appeared to have underestimated the resolve of Washington and Europe to demand limitations on Iranian nuclear activities for a decade or more in exchange for sanctions relief.

"Rouhani thought that by speaking nicely and not calling for Israel's destruction, Western powers would rush to sign a deal, any deal, with Iran," the official said. "He miscalculated. The Western powers may also want an agreement but they're also constrained by Congress, Israel and Saudi." (Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Gareth Jones)

Also on HuffPost:

  • Ahmadinejad out, Rouhani in
    The thaw in relations owes a lot to this guy - president Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June 2013. In the 19 months between the British embassy closing and Rouhani's election, relations between Britain and Iran failed to improve - Britain even sending a warship to the Gulf over fears Iran may block the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. But Rouhani's election marks a sea change. He is seen as more moderate than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is elected promising to improve relations with the West. His election prompts Britain to say it is interested in improving relations "step by step".
  • Rouhani addresses the UN
    Rouhani visits New York City in September 2013, three months after his election. It is seen as a major break with his predecessor's line on "The Great Satan" and signals a desire to improve US/Iran relations. He addresses the UN, saying "peace is within reach" and offers negotiations to allay "reasonable concerns" the West has over his country's nuclear programme. In the same month, foreign secretary William Hague meets with his Iranian counterpart. Hague said he welcomed Iran's offers to slow down its uranium enrichment programme.
  • Obama and Rouhani's historic phone call
    September 28 2013 - A 15-minute phone call between Obama and Rouhani is hailed as a historic moment that ends the 34-year diplomatic freeze between the two countries. It is the first conversation between an American and Iranian leader since 1979. Rouhani tweeted about the conversation, saying Obama ended it by saying "goodbye" in Farsi. After historic phone conversation with @BarackObama, President #Rouhani in plane abt to depart for Tehran. #UNGA— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 27, 2013
  • Diplomats exchanged
    In the same month, foreign secretary William Hague meets with his Iranian counterpart. Hague said he welcomed Iran's offers to slow down its uranium enrichment programme. In October, Hague and Mohammad Javad Zarif (pictured right) announced that the countries will exchange diplomats with a view to re-opening permanent embassies in each country.
  • Cameron calls Rouhani
    November 2013 - After Obama becomes the first American president to call the Iranian leader in 34 years, David Cameron calls him too, becoming the first prime minister to do so in more than a decade. "The two leaders discussed the bilateral relationship between Britain and Iran welcoming the steps taken since President Rouhani took office," a Downing Street spokesman says. "They agreed to continue efforts to improve the relationship on a step by step and reciprocal basis." Cameron also implores Rouhani to be "more transparent" with Iran's nuclear programme, Downing Street says.
  • About that embassy...
    Suddenly, being friends became a lot more urgent when ISIS took Mosul, Iraq's second city, and began tearing through the country executing opponents and imposing strict Islamic law on the population. The Sunni militants' rise has been blamed on the pro-Shia stance of Iraq's Malaki government. Under Saddam, the country's Sunni minority dominated political life and fought an eight-year with Iran, which is a Shia majority country and does not like the idea of a terrorist army on its doorstep.
Suggest a correction