The smiles have faded. It’s barely been a week since the now-famous phone call between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between American and Iranian heads of state in 34 years. But it’s increasingly obvious that if the two want to keep talking about ways to end the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, they’re going to have to face down powerful, perhaps decisive, opposition at home at every step of the process.
For Rouhani, the essential question is whether he’s got the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. For Obama, the problem is—one almost hates to say this—Congress. And not the least of the complications is that Khamenei is watching what’s happening on Capitol Hill and wondering if there’s any prayer that Obama can keep commitments made in the negotiations.
That was the essential subtext in remarks Khamenei made on Saturday during a visit to cadets at a military academy. Rouhani’s charm offensive at the United Nations General Assembly last month was all well and good, said the Supreme Leader, who will have the final word on any nuclear deal. Even before Rouhani traveled to New York, Khamenei had endorsed what he called an attitude of “heroic flexibility.” But the avuncular Rouhani, a mullah who sometimes came across at press conferences in New York like Santa Claus in a turban, may have gone a little far, Khamenei suggested.
"We support the [Rouhani] government's diplomatic movement, including the trip to New York, because we trust the government and we are optimistic regarding it," Khamenei said in a speech quoted by ISNA news agency. "But some of what happened in New York was not proper, because the U.S. government is not trustworthy, is self-important and illogical, and breaks promises," said the supreme leader.
The first part of that statement is important. Trust is always a tricky political question. But inside Iran, Rouhani has unique stature, and not only because he won the recent presidential elections with a majority in the first round.
“Rouhani is a veteran political operator who has the respect, if not necessarily the trust, of all the important circles of power,” says Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior lecturer at Lund University in Sweden. “He has represented the highest authorities of the Islamic Republic in many different capacities over the last 30 years.”
There is a deep divide in the theocratic establishment between Khamenei and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The former is often described as a hardline ideologue, the later as a more pragmatic politician, but the rivalry is old and personal and much more complicated than that. What’s striking about Rouhani is that he managed to win the confidence of both men at the same time and over many years. He has been the personal representative of the Supreme Leader on the Supreme National Security Council since 1989, and a member of the Expediency Council, dominated by Rafsanjani, since 1992. He was also the lead nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, a period when it seemed a settlement might be reached. (The Bush administration wasn’t much interested in a deal back then.)
Rouhani “has the ability to bring together the various elements of the elite whose approval, tacit or otherwise, is needed,” says Parsi.
It’s not irrational to ask, if that’s the case, who has the ability to bring the “various elements” together in Washington if a deal with Iran gets close. And the answer, against the background of the government shutdown, is probably nobody.
When Iranian and American delegations meet in Geneva on October 15 and 16 to begin serious negotiations, they will try to devise a step-by-step program in which Iran, at a minimum, curtails nuclear enrichment and opens all its nuclear sites to inspection on short notice to assure the international community that it is telling the truth when it says it is not trying to build weapons. In exchange, Iran wants the U.S., the European Union and the U.N. Security Council to dial back devastating economic sanctions imposed on its oil, shipping and finance operations.
But many of the most painful sanctions, dating back to the mid-1990s, have been imposed by the U.S. Congress—and there continues to be a bipartisan push (yes, bipartisan!) to make them tougher. (Khamenei said on Saturday that Israel basically dictates this sort of policy. Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has always been more comfortable dealing with Capitol Hill than with the White House, especially under Obama.)
In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 400 to 20 to impose new sanctions aimed at cutting Iran’s oil exports to close to zero. Since those account for 80 percent of government revenues in a country already struggling to meet its people’s needs, the effect could be pretty dramatic.
The Senate looks inclined to go along—and then some. When the Under Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, suggested in testimony before Congress last week that the administration might favor some sanctions relief for verifiable progress on the “core” nuclear issues, she got a very cool reception.
The reaction of Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois was typical. “The State Department should not aid and abet a European appeasement policy by pressuring the Senate to delay sanctions while the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism races toward a nuclear weapons capability,” Kirk said in a statement. “So long as Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, build longer range ballistic missiles, sponsor terrorism around the world and abuse human rights, the Senate should impose maximum economic pressure on Iran to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
No wonder Khamenei has his doubts about Obama’s ability to deliver the American end of a deal.