In Geneva this week, an Iranian delegation has been holding talks with six other nations about its country’s nuclear program. These negotiations — the first to take place under the auspices of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani — inspired little bursts of positive rhetoric. The BBC reported an “upbeat mood” in Geneva. A European diplomat spoke of “cautious optimism.” Rouhani himself had pledged to “resolve” the nuclear problem within the next six months.
After years of no progress with Iran, why the sudden good cheer? It’s certainly not because Rouhani represents a radical new strand of Iranian thinking about nuclear power. After all, he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Parts of the nuclear program were temporarily suspended during that time, but it was never eliminated.
Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
Nor does Rouhani’s new cabinet mark a profound break from those who have run the Islamic Republic since its inception. As his justice minister, Rouhani has appointed Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former high official in the Ministry of Information during the bloody and violent 1980s. Among other things, Pourmohammadi was one of those primarily responsible for the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. He moved on to the ministry’s foreign intelligence operations in the 1990s, during which its “achievements” included the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and the assassination of dissidents in Iran and around the world.
No one is denying this bit of history. After appointing Pourmohammadi, Rouhani went out of his way to praise his “numerous experiences in the government” and his record: “he has been successful, wherever he has been.” Little appears to have changed: In the week of Sept. 23, when Rouhani was at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, more than 30 Iranians were reportedly executed without due process of law.
Rouhani’s team, in other words, has not gone to Geneva after a process of profound internal transformation. On the contrary, Iran has returned to negotiations for only one reason: The new president wants economic sanctions lifted because they have taken a powerful toll on the Iranian economy. At a recent conference in London, I heard Iranian diaspora economists return again and again to that theme. Sanctions have destabilized Iran’s currency, oil and gas industry, international trade and investor confidence. Of course the shortcomings of sanctions are well known: They are a blunt and inefficient instrument; plenty of people defy them; and illicit trade goes on all the time. And, yes, they distribute economic pain over the entire population and don’t necessarily hit hardest the people who make the decisions. Nevertheless, three decades’ worth of overlapping unilateral and multilateral sanctions on Iran, organized at different times by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, are, at least in a narrow sense, “working”; they have forced Iran’s leaders back to a negotiating table they had largely abandoned some years ago.