Are the U.S. and Iran on the brink of détente? Quite suddenly, ahead of the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly later this week, hopes are again running high for some sort of diplomatic breakthrough with the Islamic Republic.
The reasons have everything to do with the maneuvers of Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani. Less than two months after taking power in Tehran, the soft-spoken cleric who succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Iran's top political post has embarked upon a major charm offensive aimed at wooing the West.
Recent days have seen the Iranian government orchestrate the well-publicized release of prominent political prisoners, float the idea of a shutdown of a key uranium enrichment facility, and raise the possibility that Mr. Rouhani might rub shoulders, if only accidentally, with President Obama at Turtle Bay. Taking a page from the playbook of Vladimir Putin, Iran's president has even penned an oped in a major U.S. newspaper calling for "constructive engagement" between Iran and the world.
All of this has generated considerable optimism in official Washington, where pundits and policymakers alike are now enamored with what is already being termed as a "historic opportunity" for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. As such, it bears asking what, exactly, lies behind Mr. Rouhani's dulcet diplomatic tones? The reasons, it turns out, are pragmatic—and the parameters of Iran's diplomatic flexibility are already evident.
Foremost among these is the fact that the Iranian regime is in economic dire straits, and that its fiscal woes are deepening. According to a new report from the World Economic Forum, inflation in the Islamic Republic was the highest in the world last year. The Forum's study of 148 countries, based upon data compiled from the International Monetary Fund, found that Iran averaged an inflation rate of 30.6 percent in 2012, beating out other economically unstable actors, such as Ethiopia, Malawi, Venezuela, Tanzania, Guinea, Mongolia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. This state of affairs, moreover, is getting worse. According to statistics compiled by the Central Bank of Iran itself, the average rate of inflation over the twelve months ending in the fifth Iranian calendar month of Mordad (August 22, 2013) is now nearly 10 percent higher, standing at 39 percent. Commodity prices, meanwhile, are soaring, with the price of staple goods like butter doubling in recent weeks.
In other words, Western sanctions are working—at least on a tactical level. So, consistent with his campaign promises, Mr. Rouhani is now attempting to ease his country's economic pain. In exchange for its "good faith" overtures of recent days, Tehran is seeking massive relief from sanctions, including that "the United States and Europe rescind their sanctions against the Islamic Republic, lift the ban on Iranian oil exports and allow the country's central bank to do international business again." Needless to say, that would constitute a shot in the arm for Iran's ailing economy—and, potentially, some much-needed breathing room for the country's stubborn nuclear program.
On that issue, meanwhile, the potential for compromise is decidedly murky. Mr. Rouhani, via intermediaries, may have floated the idea of a meaningful step forward (in the form of the closure of one of its uranium enrichment facilities, the pilot enrichment plant at Fordo). But, experts point out that this is hardly decisive, insofar as the regime already has sufficient quantities of low- and medium-enriched uranium and working centrifuges to make possible the development of weapons-grade fissile material. That means that the Iranian overture, even if it materializes, won't derail the regime's nuclear ambitions. Rather, "Iran will be looking at how little they can try and do to get sanction relief," says David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
But it's far from clear that Mr. Rouhani can even deliver that much. Iran's president, after all, doesn't control the nuclear program; that's the purview of the country's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who has labeled uranium enrichment an "inalienable right" in the past. Whether he's willing to roll back that commitment now is very much an open question—and a much more salient one than whether or not Iran's president is willing to do so.
Finally, it bears remembering that we've seen this movie before. Back in the late 1990s, the rise of "reformist" president Mohammad Khatami in Tehran was greeted with glee in Washington. Quickly, though, the Clinton White House discovered that Khatami's plans for a "dialogue of civilizations" with the West had a great deal more to do with easing Iran's international isolation than they did with orchestrating a true rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. There's more than a passing possibility that Mr. Rouhani's plan for "constructive engagement" is cut from the same cloth, especially given his proximity to Iran's clerical establishment and his leading role in pushing Iran's nuclear program forward in the past.
None of this means that the Obama administration shouldn't explore the opening that has been presented by Mr. Rouhani's overtures. But it should remember that the potential for the Iranian regime to compromise—and for Iran's new president to serve as the broker for that reconciliation—is limited. So should be the Administration's hope for a real, meaningful breakthrough, given the sobering experiences of the recent past.