Yesterday Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as Iran's new president thus putting an end to the volatile Ahmadinejad era. Rouhani is a seasoned politician who has long served in the upper echelons of power in the Islamic Republic. He was once Iran's chief nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and was instrumental in suspending Iran's enrichment program a decade ago. He has signaled to those in Iran and abroad that he wants to negotiate with the P5+1 and resolve the questions surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
There are many issues that separate Iran and the United States; however, the most urgent one that needs to be addressed is the nature of Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. wants to make sure that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and wants to ensure that these negotiations are not a guise for an ulterior motive of some in Washington who desire regime change. They will point to recent statements coming from Republicans leaders in Congress who are constantly calling for crippling sanctions and have cast aspersions on the presidential election in Iran. From Tehran perspective, it's difficult to negotiate in good faith when you feel your counter-party in those negotiations wants to remove you from the chair in which you sit. What many in Washington believe are smart, targeted sanctions to change Iran's behavior are perceived by Tehran as being put in place to sow regime change through domestic discontent.
The Iranian leadership has long renounced nuclear weapons and has pointed to a fatwa or religious edict from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei forbidding the development and use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. In fact, during its eight-year war with Iraq, Iran suffered chemical attacks from Saddam Hussein but did not respond in kind partly because its leadership viewed the use of such weapons as forbidden by Islamic law. During the P5+1 negotiations last year in Baghdad, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator insisted that if Tehran's right to domestically enrich uranium were recognized and an agreement between it and the international community reached, then it would register this fatwa with the United Nations thereby giving greater assurance to the international community that Iran would not convert its domestic enrichment program into a full-fledged weapons program. In turn, the international community could put in place a robust inspections regime under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to make sure Iran does not enrich uranium beyond 5% or some other mutually agreed-upon level that could meet Iran's domestic energy needs while remaining far from the level required for weaponization.
From Tehran's perspective, suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for spare parts for its aging fleet of aircraft or more access to bartering gold from Turkey is not enticing. If the goal of the P5 +1 is to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear weapons state, then what they offer Iran should not be "incremental sanctions relief" but significant sanctions relief and a clear road-map to eventually removing all sanctions. As an example, Iran should be informed that its right to enrich under the NPT will be recognized in principle so long as it agrees to suspend enrichment beyond 20 percent and allow a robust inspections regime to be put in place to reassure the international community that it will stick to its commitments.
Abandoning domestic enrichment completely is no longer feasible for the Iranian leadership, this has become a great source of national pride. Neither, is accepting a deal that does not address either its core security concerns, (the threat of regime change) or does not offer significant sanctions relief. Thus, the P5+1 need to broaden their approach and stop insisting on one sided deliverables from Iran such as suspending all domestic uranium enrichment or closing the Fordow enrichment facility in exchange for minimal sanctions relief. The P5+1 should put more on the table. Removing sanctions on Iran's central bank is a good place to start; over the last year Iran's currency has devalued, which in turn has brought hyper inflation as prices for food and medicine have soared. This has made life unbearable for the Iranian people and is affecting those most in need. Another possibility would be to remove the sanctions which bar Iran from buying Boeing and Airbus planes. Those who would benefit the most from such initiatives would be the Iranian people, who every day are risking their lives flying on aircraft that are outdated. While the Obama administration and Congress claim that sanctions are not being put in place to punish the Iranian people, this is exactly who is bearing the brunt of them.
In the end, the only two countries that can solve this impasse are Iran and the United States through bilateral negotiations. This is something for which the politicians in both countries have been laying the foundation for. Iran's nuclear program is one of many issues that must be addressed as both sides have a long list of grievances with the other. Solving the nuclear impasse could provide the leadership in each country with the confidence to move onto other thornier issues such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and security in the Persian Gulf. Resolving this standoff would ensure that the United States is no longer fixated on the nuclear weapons Iran doesn't have, but rather on those that unstable countries like Pakistan and North Korea do have.
Amir Handjani is an Iranian-American attorney living and working in the UAE.