WASHINGTON, Sep 05 (IPS) - Even with potential U.S. strikes against Iranian ally Syria looming, Washington and Tehran appear to be preparing for the resumption of nuclear talks.U.S. foreign policy analysts have been bustling since the Aug. 4 inauguration of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who may have ushered in a new era of Iranian diplomacy and international relations.
“As the architect of the sole nuclear agreement between Iran and the West - a not inconsiderable achievement given the depth of mistrust - Rouhani presents a real chance for making progress in nuclear talks,” Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, told IPS.
“Under [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, although the two sides were sitting at the same table, one side played chess, the other checkers. Under Rouhani, they are more likely to play the same game, albeit according to different rules,” he said.
“To succeed, the two sides need to do what they never truly did during the past few years: bargain,” added Vaez.
Iran’s announcement on Thursday that its Western-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would become Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator has also received a cautious nod from the White House.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Thursday that the United States was aware of reports that Iran had moved its nuclear negotiating file from its Supreme National Security Council to its Foreign Ministry.
“The inauguration of President Rouhani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community's deep concerns over Iran's nuclear programme,” she added.
Zarif’s appointment will add to an apparent growing conviction here that Rouhani is someone whom Washington can work with.
He made powerful acquaintances, including with then-senators Dianne Feinstein, Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel, during his tenure as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations (2002-2007), although his contacts with U.S. diplomats date back all the way to the 1980s when he helped negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.
“Zarif…is one of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever met in professional life…and I don’t think he believes it’s in Iran’s best interest to have a nuclear weapon personally,” said nuclear policy expert George Perkovich, at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace briefing Thursday.
But Perkovich cautioned that Zarif is also a “formidable” negotiator who “unlike some of their predecessors” is neither “dumb” nor “ideological".
“And so…we’re going to have to be sharp and on our game because if you’re trying to do stuff that’s just patently unfair and unbalanced, they’re just going to be able to slap us around the head rhetorically,” he added.
While no official date has been set, negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group could resume as early as this month, though it remains to be seen how U.S. military action against Syria might affect them.
For Vaez, “A limited U.S. strike on Syria is more likely to delay than derail nuclear talks with Iran.”
He also told IPS that that Rouhani has put aiding Iran’s ailing economy and ending its isolation at the top of his agenda and will not let Syria “spoil” his plan.
“Losing both Syria and an opportunity for sanctions relief will constitute a double blow to Iran’s strategic interests and its new president’s agenda,” said Vaez.
While Rouhani has not personally, unlike hardliners in Iran, cast blame on Syria’s rebels for the alleged chemical attack, he has stated that the issue should be handled by the U.N. and warned against foreign military action.
“Iran, as it has stated before, considers any action against Syria not only harmful to the region but also to U.S. allies and believes that such a measure will not benefit anyone,” said Rouhani at the 14th Summit of the Assembly of Experts on Wednesday.
The careful line that Iran is walking on Syria, considered a long-time partner in Iran’s resistance bloc toward Israel, could result in an Iranian shift away from its ally as it pursues its greater interests.
“Syria has become Iran's Vietnam, and [Bashar al-] Assad's extensive use of chemical weapons, in equal parts amoral and stupid, had magnified Tehran's quandary,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told IPS.
“With the leadership divided over how to respond, the hardliners are doubling down on their unqualified support for Assad, while Rouhani and other pragmatists are distancing themselves. Those divisions mean Iran will not respond militarily to a limited U.S.-led attack, though the flow of Iranian military arms may intensify, if enough Syrian airfields survive the tomahawk strikes,” he said.
“However difficult the mess Obama has on his hands over Syria, it's nothing compared to the trouble Rouhani has been presented by his 'ally' in Damascus,” said Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick added that while it’s not clear how such a move would play out, “Any real solution to the Syrian mess will have to involve the key outside players, including Iran.”
For now, Rouhani and Zarif at least appear to be holding true to what Rouhani said would be Iran’s policy of “constructive interaction with the world” during his first presidential press conference.
Rouhani’s eyebrow-raising Rosh Hashanah greeting on Twitter Wednesday was followed by a similar one by Zarif (his second official Tweet) who proceeded to tell U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter that she shouldn’t confuse his government with that of his predecessor.
“Iran never denied [the Holocaust]," Tweeted Zarif in response to a request by Christine Pelosi to “end Iran’s Holocaust denial".
“The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year,” replied Zarif.
But the potential of additional sanctions on Iran pushed through by Congress during this critical time and the persistent negative effects of decades of mutual mistrust between Iran and the U.S. will temper hopes for a quick resolution to the nuclear issue regardless of what happens in Syria.
U.S. and Israeli fears that Iran could achieve the capability to dash toward a nuclear weapon by as early as 2014 according to worst-case assessments also increases urgency here.
To date, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Iran has not made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons.
“The issue then is not whether Iran will make decision in 2014 to dash for nuclear weapons. We don’t know whether they will or whether they want to and probably the probability is that they won’t, but they might,” Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top Middle East advisor during Obama’s first term, told IPS at the Carnegie briefing.
“The issue is more, from a U.S. perspective, that this becomes the last moment that the intelligence community can come to the president and say, boss, we’ll know when they move to nuclear weapons,” he said.
“If we lose the ability to detect [Iran’s dash toward a weapon], the ability to prevent nuclear weapons goes down dramatically and the military option then slips off the table… if I’m right…whatever your assessment is, and say that’s the amount of time we have for a diplomatic deal, that means you have 12-18 months. So let’s get on with it,” Kahl told IPS.