Over the past few weeks, a number of public statements have indicated that newly elected President Hassan Rouhani intends to make good on his campaign promises to improve Iran’s relations with the international community. While these gestures by themselves do not represent a change in policy, the United States and its partners should test whether they represent an opening for a negotiated solution to the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.
Both Rouhani and his new foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, have been active on Twitter. Rouhani’s campaign staff reportedly operates his Twitter feed, whereas Zarif personally operates his own. “My gov[ernment] has prioritized achieving stability & security in region. If invited to conference on Syria in Geneva, we’re ready to cooperate,” Rouhani tweeted on August 22. “Iran is committed to international regulations including NPT & all nuclear activities take place under IAEA supervision,” he tweeted on September 10.
What’s more, both Rouhani and Zarif caused a stir last week by communicating greetings to the world’s Jewish community for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” tweeted Rouhani on September 4. “Happy Rosh Hashanah,” tweeted Zarif later that day. These remarks are in stark contrast with the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying rants of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the threatening anti-Israel rhetoric of other members of the Iranian elite.
The Washington Post reported that the flurry of Twitter diplomacy has touched off a debate within the Iranian regime over whether officials should use social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook—which are blocked for many Iranians—to speak to a global audience. As such, a government task force announced that it would examine the use of social media by members of the government. As Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, the task force’s secretary, told the Fars News Agency on Saturday:
Our office will soon study the content of pages of some ministers on various social networks like Facebook. Some people have said that there is criminal content posted in such pages, which we have to study in our office and then give our assessment.
Meanwhile, an even more consequential debate has erupted within the regime over the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Iran is Syria’s main regional ally, and Syria has long been a key staging point for weapons that Iran has supplied to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as a lynchpin of Iran’s efforts to build influence among Arab states. But Syria’s use of chemical weapons has put the Iranian regime in a bind: Iran itself endured chemical-weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein’s military during the hugely destructive Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, with the acquiescence of the United States, according to recently declassified documents. The memory of those Iraqi chemical attacks—and the international community’s failure to punish them—continues to play a major role in Iranian political discourse, both in terms of Iranian self-reliance and as a demonstration of Western hypocrisy when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, which the country continues to claim is peaceful.
Via Twitter on Tuesday, Rouhani stated, “we strongly condemn use of chemical weapons,” while not attributing their use to the Assad regime. Likewise, Zarif wrote on his Facebook page that “Any use of chemical weapons must be condemned, regardless of its victims or culprits. This is Iran’s unambiguous position as a victim of chemical warfare.” But he suggested that the evidence should be further examined.
The question now is whether this new, more conciliatory Iranian attitude will be reflected at the nuclear negotiating table. In one of his first significant moves since taking office, Rouhani transferred the oversight of nuclear negotiations from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry. As foreign minister, Zarif, who is widely respected in the West as a pragmatic diplomat, now has responsibility for the nuclear negotiations file in the new government. Given how closely Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has maintained control of all aspects of Iran’s nuclear work, his support of this move suggests Rouhani and Zarif have his backing to make a deal.
Earlier this week, Yukiya Amano, president of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, addressed a session of the agency’s 35-nation board for the first time since Rouhani took office in August, and sounded a cautious note stressing Iran’s obligations. “Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable us to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities,” he told the meeting, according to a copy of his speech obtained by Reuters. He added, however, that the IAEA remained committed to working with Rouhani’s government to “resolve outstanding issues by diplomatic means.”
Rouhani also announced last week that he would be attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York later this month. In a meeting with prayer leaders on Tuesday, he said, “Maybe in the following weeks the first negotiations about the nuclear case will take place in New York and later be continued with P5+1 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany] at a designated location.” Echoing previous statements about Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program, which enjoys broad support among Iranians, Rouhani continued, “The administration will put all of its efforts toward working for the nation’s inalienable rights and will try to resolve this issue with reason, logic and wisdom combined with esteem.”
The Iranian nuclear impasse remains one of the key challenges for the United States in the Middle East: Using all the tools of American power to achieve a diplomatic solution to the problem has been a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda since taking office in 2009. As President Obama said in a speech in Jerusalem in March:
Strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons. Peace is far more preferable to war, and the inevitable costs, the unintended consequences that would come with war means that we have to do everything we can to try to resolve this diplomatically.
The United States should take the earliest opportunity to test President Rouhani’s and Foreign Minister Zarif’s intentions and see if their welcome and conciliatory words can be matched by the Islamic Republic’s deeds.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.