CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviews Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York on September 24, 2013.
Hassan Rouhani full interview
00:34 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a PhD Candidate at Harvard University. He tweets at @shashj.

Story highlights

The Obama administration continues to impose punishing sanctions on Iran, writes Joshi

Hassan Rouhani has freed more than 80 political prisoners, following through on his pledges

Joshi: Rouhani is willing to anger domestic constituencies in pursuit of his agenda

Iran's charm offensive appears to have disoriented Israel, says Joshi

CNN  — 

The media circus over Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to New York has evoked euphoria at one end of the spectrum, and rank alarmism at the other. It’s worth taking a moment to pick out a few important points:

First, the notion that Rouhani has “checkmated” Obama - as Bloomberg’s Fouad Ajami put it - is nothing short of absurd. It makes one wonder whether the skeptics in question have ever actually played chess. The Obama administration has not only given nothing away, but continues to impose upon Iran the most punishing sanctions ever applied to a would-be nuclear proliferator. Iran’s oil exports have more than halved in volume over the past year, inflation is around 60%, and over a quarter of Iranian youth are unemployed. The idea that Obama is all carrot and no stick is egregiously wrong.

Shashank Joshi

Read more: Why oil is where Tehran feels the pain

Second, some suggest that Rouhani is offering nothing more than empty words - a “smiley campaign,” as Israel’s intelligence minister put it – but no concrete actions. This view is also mistaken. Rouhani has already freed more than 80 political prisoners, many of whom were arrested during the 2009 Green Revolution. The Islamic Republic remains an autocratic regime which holds large numbers of political prisoners and commits grave human rights abuses on a regular basis. But the prisoner release is a sign that Rouhani is willing and able to at least partially follow through on pledges he made on his campaign trail.

With respect to the nuclear dispute, Rouhani’s most important action to date has been to remove the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council – which is more easily influenced by hardliners – and handed it to the more moderate foreign ministry, run by Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Western diplomats see Zarif as reasonable and pragmatic, a far cry from previous nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Rouhani could not have changed these arrangements without the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Indeed, the Washington Post’s well-connected columnist David Ignatius reported last week that Rouhani’s claim to be “fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks” by Khamenei is “confirmed by Western intelligence reports”. Of course, we can only test this at the negotiating table.

Read more: Iran’s president: Europe, U.S sound ‘different compared to the past’

Yet it is also important to recognise that Rouhani’s supposedly empty rhetoric – his praise for Americans, enthusiasm for dialogue, and exhortations to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to stay out of politics – is not without domestic political cost. If this round of diplomacy comes to nothing, Rouhani will be severely depleted of political capital and Khamenei will happily let him twist in the wind. Words are never enough to strike a deal, but nor should they be discounted too flippantly. They show that Rouhani is willing to anger domestic constituencies in pursuit of his agenda; for that, he deserves praise.

Third, Iran’s charm offensive appears to have disoriented Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is overplaying his hand. When Netanyahu instructed his diplomats to walk out of Rouhani’s address to the UN General Assembly before it had even started, he simply looked petty. He even earned a rebuke from his own centrist finance minister, Yair Lapid, who pointed out that it was “reminiscent of the ways Arab states behaved towards Israel”.

Read more: Iranians warm to possible thaw

Netanyahu’s government then looked more churlish still when it essentially rebuffed Rouhani’s condemnation of the Holocaust - an important and necessary step, after eight years of abhorrent Holocaust denial by former President Ahmadinejad and many others in the Iranian political elite. Israel is entirely correct to point out that such virulent rhetoric was and remains widespread in the Iranian political system, and that Rouhani’s ambivalence over the scale of genocide was disturbing. But Rouhani’s statement should have been acknowledged as generally positive.

Israel’s posture towards the nuclear dispute is also problematic at a deeper level. A document leaked to the Washington Post purported to be an internal Israeli assessment of Iran’s strategy in nuclear talks. It set out four “unequivocal demands” that Israeli officials demanded be met by Iran: stop all nuclear enrichment, dismantle the enrichment plant at Fordow and part of the plant at Natanz, ship out all enriched uranium, and stop construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak.

Read more: Amanpour on why Rouhani may be different

Many of these are reasonable demands – indeed, they largely follow the terms of multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions to which both Russia and China have acquiesced – but stated as such they represent a repudiation of the whole idea of negotiation. They amount to a demand that Iran unconditionally surrender. And, since Israeli officials must know that such capitulation is incredibly unlikely, they carry an unacceptable risk of premature war.

The truth is that Iran could be prevented from building a nuclear weapon by measures short of “zero enrichment” – for instance, a cap on its level of enrichment and stockpiles rather than an outright prohibition. In particular, any settlement will likely include a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, albeit at lower levels. If Iran enriches uranium only to 5%, with caps on how much enriched uranium it can accumulate and intrusive inspections, it will have no realistic prospect of ever dashing for a bomb.

Read more: One day, U.S. and Iranian president might shake hands

The cynical view is that Israel seeks to sabotage nuclear talks. But given that prominent members of Israel’s own military and intelligence establishment are skeptical of military action, this isn’t so obvious. It seems more likely that Israel is merely reprising its role as the bad cop – setting out a maximalist position in the hope that it forces Obama to drive a harder bargain, and secure a better deal. Indeed, Israel’s “internal” assessment is a curiously simplistic document, which indicates that it may be a deliberate leak to shape the impending nuclear diplomacy to which Iran and the so-called P5+1 bloc of states agreed this week. The danger is that this backfires. As one senior Israeli official told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Netanyahu’s message on Iran is unrefined, arouses opposition and most importantly, is not especially convincing.”

The U.S. and Iran have now both said that they want a rapid resolution of the nuclear dispute. If this is to happen, Rouhani will have to make painful concessions: rolling back Iran’s nuclear capability by years, opening up to the IAEA, and selling this to Iranians as a victory. Everyone should be clear: no rhetoric can substitute for these concrete actions, and no sanctions relief will be possible until this process begins. But Rouhani’s words are meaningful signals that will lubricate the diplomacy of the coming months, and should not be dismissed out of hand.

Read more: U.S., Iran relations: No overnight miracles

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shashank Joshi.