BERLIN — During his election campaign, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani had criticized his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive behavior towards the West. He claimed that Iran needed to moderate its tone in order to win the West’s trust about its nuclear program. Since his election victory, Rouhani has launched an unprecedented charm offensive on the former Western “enemy.”

Now politicians across the Western world are left wondering whether he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims, or whether Tehran really is prepared to relinquish its nuclear program.

The Western world — and particularly the United States — seems eager to believe Rouhani’s promises as it wants to avoid taking military action. The Israelis and Saudis are right to fear that the West may end up with a raw deal from Iran and allow it to continue its attempts to develop nuclear weapons. It is still unclear how much Rouhani is prepared to compromise.

The strict sanctions imposed on Iran are clearly having an effect on the economy and forcing the government into talks. However, the political elite in Tehran still believe that developing nuclear weapons is in the country’s best interests, as it would allow Iran to consolidate its position of power in the region.

Nuclear weapons would also stabilize the regime internally. After investing millions of dollars in the program, Iran is not likely to give up its nuclear ambitions without a fight.

Dangerous signs of progress

In 2003, Rouhani was Iran’s chief negotiator in the nuclear talks. Even before then he was closely involved in shaping the country’s nuclear strategy. His tactic was to relent on some points in order to avoid harsher sanctions. At the same time Iran was expanding the parts of its nuclear program that can be classed as civilian activities, such as uranium enrichment.

When he was leader of Iran's National Security Council, Rouhani summarized his aims as follows: “If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we actually possess the technology, then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle. But Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton during October 2013 Iran nuclear talks — Photo: Wang Siwei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Now Iran does possess the entire fuel cycle that is necessary to create weapons-grade uranium. In recent years, Tehran has also intensified its work on the Arak heavy water reactor, which would allow the country to build a plutonium bomb. These significant steps towards an irreversible nuclear weapons program mean that the promise of greater transparency and inspections will not be enough to satisfy the West, as the Iranians hope.

The only solution instead is a complete reversal of the Iranian nuclear program, including its supposedly civilian activities.

The international negotiators must concentrate on those elements of the Iranian program that are most central to its strategy of becoming irreversible. That means uranium enrichment, as Iran can preserve and perfect the technique if it enriches only to 3.5% rather than 20% or more. The underground enrichment plant near Fordo would be difficult or impossible to attack if Iran decided to put a rush on developing a nuclear bomb there, while environmental considerations mean that the reactor under construction in Arak could not be destroyed if it began produced weapons-grade plutonium.

Inside Iran

The Iranian government is not completely united over the question of atomic weapons. On one side there is President Rouhani, whose most important aims are to have sanctions lifted and drive revolutionaries out from key positions in politics and the economy. Rouhani may be open to a compromise, but there are also the radical hardliners who would like to invent facts — and nuclear warheads.

These radicals are kept in line by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He fears that continuing sanctions could damage the regime, but he has also recently set “red lines” that will not be acceptable to the international community. Khamenei believes that any substantial compromise from Iran will lead to new demands from the West. That is why he has put the father of the Iranian nuclear program and current leader of the National Security Council Ali Shamkhani in place to keep an eye on Rouhani.

The President, on the other hand, is trying to take advantage of public opinion and the support of important figures such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in order to gain more room for maneuver with Khamenei. 

In this context, the West has to play its hand right. For the first time in 10 years, it has found a trump card in the sanctions against Iran. This is an advantage it must not throw away. Western partners are prepared to lift some of the sanctions in exchange for the first significant concessions from the Iranians — but this would be a catastrophic mistake. Barack Obama’s veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross recently called for a tightening of the sanctions as long as Iran continues with its uranium enrichment program.

For the past decade, Iran has played the international community, inventing facts, neglecting its responsibilities from the non-proliferation treaty, ignoring the UN Security Council’s demands to abandon its uranium enrichment program and lying to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now it has reached the point of no return.

The West must hold its nerve and not allow itself to be swayed from its attempts to find a diplomatic solution. As past negotiations have shown, only sustained pressure can force Iran to make concessions.