The election of the pragmatic Hassan Rowhani has is no way alleviated Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. This was the main take-away from a visit to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this past week with Survival editor Dana Allin. For every optimist comment we heard, a half dozen reasons were advanced for pessimism. Apart from two Israelis who have personal experience in Iran, our interlocutors offered a series of riffs on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's post-election warning that the West should not be taken in by appearances: Rowhani is a regime insider, who in any case is second fiddle to a grumpy old man; sanctions pressure must be tightened; engagement is not an end in itself; neither, for that matter, is a diplomatic deal unless it eliminates a latent capability to produce nuclear weapons.
Our four-day visit was book-ended by the Internet publication of two attention-grabbing commentaries, one by an Iranian who may be re-joining Rowhani's circle and one by an American who just left Obama's team. The first, by Hossein Mousavian, which came out in English the day after we arrived, suggested that Iran's best option may be to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and instead abide solely by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear weapons as a means of guaranteeing a non-nuclear status. The second, by former State Department senior advisor Robert Einhorn, which appeared the day of our last meetings, suggested that the US and its negotiating partners should change tactics and take advantage of Rowhani's election by considering a comprehensive proposal involving sanctions relief.
Mousavian's article was seen as a window to Rowhani's aims, which most Israeli strategists already view with deep suspicion. It was noted how, in a 2004 speech, Rowhani held up Pakistan's nuclear weapons determination as an example of why Iran should not give up its quest for a full nuclear-fuel cycle. Threats to leave the NPT have already been voiced by senior members of Parliament and by Iran's ambassador in Vienna. Although Mousavian wrote the article several weeks before the election and insists it had nothing to do with Rowhani, the NPT withdrawal idea has now become associated with the president-elect. Mousavian was a key member of Rowhani's nuclear negotiating team from 2003-2005 and worked in Rowhani's think tank afterwards. He is rumoured to be under consideration for a senior position in the new government.
Mousavian's purpose, surely, was to hold out the threat of NPT withdrawal as leverage to push the West for diplomatic concessions. He knows that NPT withdrawal would be seen as a de facto declaration of nuclear weapons intention, akin to North Korea. But such subtlety was lost on at least one of our Israeli friends, who advised that we take Mousavian's threat at face value – and to ignore the fatwa, which holds no weight in Jerusalem.
Just as Mousavian's thesis confirmed Israel's worst-case perceptions of Rowhani, Einhorn's thesis may have confirmed their worries about the West being deluded by best-case thinking. Nobody criticised Einhorn directly; they remain respectful of his long-time role in applying non-proliferation rules vis-à-vis Iran and his most recent assignment in strengthening sanctions. In meetings that took place before his article came out, however, we heard ample arguments for not going wobbly. One senior official even said that if the Iranians offer a small compromise, the proper negotiating tactic in response should be to raise demands even higher, so as to show that they should have taken the deal previously offered. The role of bad cop comes easily.
To be fair, most of our interlocutors offered more nuanced views and the idea of a comprehensive agreement was not ruled out. If the US is to make a new effort for a diplomatic deal, several urged that it include limits not only on Iran's uranium enrichment capacity but also on Tehran's ability to produce plutonium, the other path to an atomic bomb. This means stopping the Arak reactor before it goes online next year. The impending Arak timeline, along with the more efficient gas centrifuges being introduced at Natanz concentrated the minds of nearly every analyst we met.
The trend lines in Iran are also concentrating Netanyahu's mind, we were assured. Never mind that he hasn't said much about it in public recently. When he made his infamous Wile E. Coyote nuclear bomb red line speech last September, Netanyahu warned that the red line of weapons capability would come in spring or summer. It is now mid-summer. And we were reminded of the aphorism that the time to worry most is when the war drums go silent.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament programme and the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes (IISS Adelphi Paper 398, 2008). His article 'Reinforce Rowhani's Mandate for Change' will appear in the August–September 2013 issue of Survival.