President Obama’s top foreign policy aides said Sunday that they planned to press Iran’s newly elected president to resume the negotiations over his country’s nuclear program that derailed in the spring. But while the election of the new president, Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator who is considered a moderate compared with the other candidates, was greeted by some administration officials as the best of all likely outcomes, they said it did not change the fact that only the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would make the final decision about any concessions to the West.
Even so, they said they wanted to test Mr. Rowhani quickly, noting that although he argued for a moderate tone in dealing with the United States and its allies when he was a negotiator, he also boasted in 2006 that Iran had used a previous suspension of nuclear enrichment to make major strides in building its nuclear infrastructure.On the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, said of Mr. Rowhani’s election over the weekend: “I see it as a potentially hopeful sign. I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations — Iran’s relations with the rest of the world — there’s an opportunity to do that.” But Mr. McDonough said doing so would require Iran “to come clean on this illicit nuclear program.”
Another senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that for Mr. Rowhani, “wanting to end Iran’s isolation is different from agreeing to move the nuclear program to a place where it would take them years to build a weapon.”Many of the leading strategists on Iran from Mr. Obama’s first term have become increasingly critical of the president’s handling of the issue this year. Early optimism that Iranian negotiators were ready to discuss the outlines of a deal — one that would have frozen the most immediately worrisome elements of the country’s nuclear program in return for an acknowledgment of the country’s right to enrich uranium under a highly obtrusive inspection regimen — faded in April, when the talks collapsed.
But Mr. Obama chose, after some internal debate, not to allow the breakdown in talks to become a crisis, partly because he was immersed in the debate over American intervention in the Syrian civil war. “There were a lot of distractions,” said one former senior official who remains involved in the internal debates. Last week, James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under Mr. Obama, was among the writers of an op-ed article in The Washington Post arguing that “a sense of crisis is warranted” because Iran has used the first half of the year to develop two alternative paths to potentially building a bomb.
One is through a new generation of centrifuges, not yet in full operation, that could sharply reduce the amount of time Iran would need to produce weapons-grade fuel. The second is the progress that the country has apparently made in building a heavy-water reactor, that could produce plutonium in coming years, the approach Pakistan is taking to modernize its nuclear weapons program. American intelligence officials are concerned that once the facility is loaded with nuclear fuel, it could not be bombed without causing an environmental disaster. Intelligence officials have warned the White House that nuclear material could be put in the facility over the next year.
“The time is fast approaching when diplomacy will be of little or no value or credibility,” Mr. Steinberg wrote with former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Stephen J. Hadley, a former national security adviser to President George W. Bush. They urged the administration to “put forward a bold, comprehensive settlement offer that would be attractive to the Iranian people,” something the administration has declined to do so far, and to make clear that the United States is “serious that all options, including the use of force” would be used if the offer was rejected.
Mr. Rowhani gave a glimpse of his views on negotiating strategy in a speech in 2004, which leaked out of Iran two years later. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran,” he recalled at the time, “we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” a major production site. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” He added a grace note that American and Iranian officials often repeat today: “We do not have any trust in them,” he said of the West. “Unfortunately, they do not trust us, either. They think we are out to dupe them, and we think in the same way — that they want to trick and cheat us.”
The situation Mr. Rowhani inherits today is far more complex, and more fraught. The conflict in Syria has raised the prospect that Iran could lose its one ally in the region. It has also given Iran’s government new opportunities to frustrate Washington and Europe with its military support of the Syrian government. Sanctions against Iran are harsher now than ever, cutting the country’s oil production by about a million barrels a day. Iran’s currency has plummeted in value.
Wendy Sherman, the chief negotiator for the United States, characterized her latest encounters with the Iranians, as the talks collapsed, this way: “It was all ‘We need sanctions relief and let’s see how little we can do to get it.’ ” Iran had little leverage when Mr. Rowhani left his post as nuclear negotiator. Today, by the account of international inspectors, it has six tons of low enriched uranium, enough to make five or six nuclear weapons with further enrichment. There is a separate stockpile with 20 percent purity, meaning it could be turned to weapons grade in a few weeks.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. By holding a portion of that fuel in the form of a powder, which can be converted for use in a reactor, Iran has stayed just below the “red line” described by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: the production of 250 kilograms or 550 pounds, about one weapon’s worth. The United States has been pressing Iran to stop production of the medium-enriched fuel and to ship it out of the country to eliminate the most imminent threat.
“For all practical purposes, the Iranians have crossed the red line that was drawn last fall in the General Assembly,” Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence in Israel, said in April. Mr. Netanyahu insists the line has not been crossed, but on Sunday he said: “Iran will be judged by its actions. If it continues to insist on developing its nuclear program, the answer must be clear — to stop it by any means.” But the divisions in Israeli politics on the issue were clear: Shimon Peres, the elder statesman serving as Israel’s president, said Mr. Rowhani’s policies “will be better, I am sure, and that is why people voted for him.”
Mr. Obama’s former aides say his challenge is to engage Mr. Rowhani without letting up on his vow never to let Iran get a nuclear weapon, even if force is necessary. Colin H. Kahl, who held a senior Pentagon position under Mr. Obama dealing with Middle East military policy, said last week, “When the president says ‘all options are on the table’ I can tell you the table is set.”
But Mr. Kahl recently published a report written with two others for the Center for a New American Security, “If All Else Fails,” examining the preparations needed for containment. “Iran could create a nuclear weapon in secret,” he said last week. “We need to think about containment even if we hope never to do it.”