Moderating Influences

“How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.” This was what Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk had to say Wednesday after a briefing by his former Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, on the state of play in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Last weekend, the talks came tantalizingly close to closing a deal on a first phase agreement to halt to Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for limited and reversible sanctions relief, creating space for a broader comprehensive deal addressing the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The thrust of Kirk’s remark is that, whatever friendly noises any Iranian leader might make—and new President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been making a lot of them—these do not represent any genuine difference of opinion within the Iranian political system, are only the result of pressure that’s been brought to bear on Iran, and should not distract us from the country’s intrinsic villainy. It’s a simplistic view that unfortunately has a lot of adherents in Washington, and, as I noted in a piece several weeks ago, mirrors the view of many hardliners in Iran, who are just as suspicious of the United States’s motives as Kirk and company are of Iran’s.

In addition to being both ignorant and offensive, Kirk’s statement raises an interesting question about his own past support–or rather “support”–for Iranian moderates like Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, former presidential candidates and nominal heads of Iran’s reformist Green movement, who have been under house arrest since early 2011. In March of that year, Kirk issued a statement calling for Mousavi and Karroubi’s immediate release. Why, if Iranian moderates are a figment of naïve liberals’ imaginations, would he do that? Perhaps he just thought Mousavi and Karroubi were out of bullets? Or, more likely, he saw the championing of Iranian political prisoners as a way to score cheap political points bashing Iran.

For those of us who take the cause of human rights in Iran more seriously, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that a nuclear deal probably offers the best hope of improvement in the near term. While Rohani has not yet made significant steps to improve Iran’s human-rights situation (managing the nuclear negotiations is already a heavy enough political lift), a successful outcome that eases Iran’s economic situation while also securing Iran’s nuclear rights could create the sort of momentum that would help Rohani’s administration address these broader issues. "It would give Rohani and his team more bargaining power with the hard-liners,” Iranian activist Taghi Rahmani said recently. “A successful deal would definitely, positively impact social and political conditions inside of Iran.”

On the other hand, failure to achieve those goals would almost certainly have the opposite effect, which is why some Iranian human-rights groups are wary of the negative impact that further sanctions could have on the talks. In a statement Thursday, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran called on the U.S. Congress to hold off. “Adding more sanctions at this stage in the negotiations, when there is a lot of hope about the fate of nuclear talks with Iran, is tantamount to sabotage,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Campaign. “The idea of adding more sanctions at this crucial point in the negotiations disappoints millions of Iranians who are hopeful these talks will lead to a compromise and help lift the sanctions, and sounds like a drumbeat leading to war.”

While it’s quite true that the range of opinions represented in the Iranian government is small and conservative, and has grown smaller and more conservative in recent years, the fact of the matter is that Rohani and Zarif do represent a relatively moderate faction that believes that Iran’s security interests can be achieved through engagement and diplomacy, rather than through conflict.

And they've showed that this is more than just rhetoric. In addition to the serious and substantive engagement that Iran’s new negotiating team has, by all accounts, shown in Geneva, a new report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the body tasked with monitoring compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, stated that Iran had brought its installation of new centrifuges—the machines used to enrich uranium—to a virtual halt since Rohani became president.

Speaking at a security conference that I attended in Istanbul two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Zarif stated, “the perception that Iran seeks a nuclear weapon is detrimental to our [Iran’s] security.” The current negotiations represent an opportunity for Iran to reverse that perception, but it has to be managed in such a way that all sides can present to their respective publics as a win. The idea that Iran will simply capitulate if only the U.S. pushes hard enough is attractive to some, but it’s both false and dangerous, as it could lead to us squandering an opportunity that will not come again soon. 

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