What will happen with Iran?
After a whirlwind week of high-powered public diplomacy focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, where do we actually stand?
According to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran and key world powers have agreed to fast-track negotiations and hope to finalize them within a year. He spoke after his meeting with the foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other ministers were pleased with Iran’s new tone although the discussions were evidently mostly procedural. Substantive negotiations are to begin in Geneva on Oct. 15.
Earlier in the week, President Obama and the new, seemingly moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, were in the same city — in fact in the same building. But they didn’t have a meeting. And they didn’t even shake hands.
Reaction to the United Nations handshake that never was has been quite telling. Skeptical American commentators interpreted President Rouhani’s refusal to go through with a tentatively planned handshake as a negative sign.
Meanwhile, reports from Tehran suggested ordinary Iranians were disappointed not to see even a symbolic gesture that would give them some hope for an end to the crushing economic sanctions that are seriously damaging their lives.
Such reactions underscore that new talks on Iran’s nuclear program, in addition to being technically complex, are going to be fraught with each country’s domestic politics.
In both America and Iran there are strong feelings about compromise — and such forces could complicate negotiations.
President Obama has to be sensitive to the concerns of allies in the region, especially the Israelis, who strongly oppose concessions such as the easing of sanctions — unless there are ironclad guarantees that Iran will not now or ever be able to have its own nuclear weapon. Here at home, many Americans — and not just Republicans and supporters of Israel — feel the same way, reflecting the deep lack of trust in Iran that exists in this country.
For his part President Rouhani may have even more domestic challenges than does President Obama. This accounts for his decision not to further annoy his hardliners by publicly shaking hands with Obama. Other signs that he may be on a short leash arose after his interview on CNN Tuesday night.
Given that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a Holocaust denier, Rouhani was asked if he shared that view. His response was that the Holocaust was “a crime that the Nazis committed toward the Jews” and called it “reprehensible and condemnable.” However the semi-official Iranian news agency subsequently accused CNN of fabricating parts of the interview, claiming Rouhani did not use the words Holocaust or reprehensible. (He spoke in Persian and CNN used an interpreter provided by the Iranian government.)
Later in the week at a U.N. disarmament conference, Rouhani called on Israel to acknowledge and give up its own nuclear weapons.
We also learned a great deal this past week about one of Iran’s foremost hardliners — Major General Qassem Suleimani, leader of the elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards called the Quds Force.
In a major profile in The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dexter Filkins described the Quds Force as, “the sharp instrument of Iranian foreign policy, roughly analogous to a combined C.I.A. and Special Forces.” Filkins quoted a former C.I.A officer as saying, “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East.”
Frankly, until I read Filkins’ in-depth article titled “The Shadow Commander,” I had never heard of Qassem Suleimani. But if you want to understand Iranian hardliners — and the problems they present to an Iranian moderate like Rouhani — here are some things you should know:
Suleimani is a product of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. He went to the front when Iraq invaded and stayed until the end. He returned a hero, but a bitter one, believing that the Iraqi invasion was effectively a Western plot against Iran. He holds the U.S. responsible for helping Saddam Hussein obtain chemical weapons and later providing him with targeting information for their use against thousands of Iranian troops, some under his direct command.
Religion doesn’t drive him. Nationalism does.
Under his leadership, the Quds Force has been responsible for countless acts of terrorism and for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq.
Suleimani was a key figure in the development of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political/terrorist movement. Today he commands the major Iranian operation involved in Syria’s civil war from an office in Damascus. Reportedly, he also all but runs the war for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
After 9/11 he directed the Iranian outreach to help the U.S. in Afghanistan because he saw the Taliban as a more immediate threat to Iran. Among other things, his people provided American officials accurate maps on the disposition of Taliban troops and advice on attacking them.
In January 2002, when President George W. Bush linked Iran with Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil,” this cooperation ended abruptly. Suleimani was furious with Americans and felt compromised because he had helped them. With that speech, reformers in Iran were marginalized.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei evidently has a high regard for Suleimani. He has given him a free hand to operate and endowed him with a personal fortune.
Nevertheless, President Rouhani has strong popular support in Iran, and he insisted in interviews this past week that he is “fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks” by the supreme leader. He also told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (of which the Quds Force is a powerful component) “shouldn’t get itself involved in any political groupings or activities.” Khamenei made a similar statement a week ago.
As Ignatius writes, “This is important because any diplomatic breakthrough will be impossible unless Khamenei checks the Guard Corps’ power.”
Will he or won’t he? We shall see.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.