By: Roula Khalaf
“Heart” is not a word that springs to mind when you think of centrifuges spinning enriched uranium. “Scary” or “mushroom cloud” might be more appropriate. And yet Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, has found a way to associate centrifuges with matters of the heart.
In a recent speech he told Iranians that, if Tehran were to stop some types of uranium enrichment, it would not be sacrificing its principles, which are not linked to a centrifuge but “to our heart and to our willpower”.
Mr Rouhani has strong willpower but insufficient political power within the Islamic regime. He tries to make up for this through creative politics and a commanding way with words. That is how he seduced voters into backing him in the 2013 election. And that is one way he hopes to swayregime factions and the public towards compromise in the long-running nuclear talks with world powers.
Another word Mr Rouhani introduced to the debate on Sunday was “referendum”, which you also would not immediately link with the ways of the ayatollahs. He needs the support of a hardline parliament to hold a referendum — and will never obtain it. But just raising a call for a referendum as a warning is a clever pressure tactic to remind his rivals of his popular mandate.
Then there was the play with words, which seemed again to be bolstering the case for a nuclear agreement. The economy, said a president worried about crippling sanctions and falling oil prices, has always paid the price for politics in Iran; it was the turn of politics to pay for the economy.
Language is of great importance to Iranians, as are pride and symbols of independence. Barack Obama, the US president and master orator, discovered that early on, carefully choosing respectful ways in which to communicate with Iranian leaders.
In comments on Iran back in 2009, Mr Obama spoke of Iranians as “great people” with a “great civilisation”. Just over a week ago, he delivered what was seen as his most conciliatory words in an interview with America’s National Public Radio (even if one point he referred to Tehran as a country rather than the capital).
Mr Obama acknowledged that Iran had legitimate defence concerns and that it could maintain a modest nuclear programme for its energy needs. Most importantly, he described it as a country with “incredible talent and resources and sophistication”, which would be a “very successful regional power” if it abided by international rules.
Words such as “successful” and “regional power” are music to the ears of Iranian leaders. No wonder some of the US president’s critics denounced the outreach for having gone too far.
Does the flirting, and Mr Rouhani’s poetic lobbying, suggest more progress in negotiations than we have been led to believe? It is hard to tell.
After the disappointing failure to reach a comprehensive agreement in November, Iran and world powers agreed to an extension of an interim accord, and to continue talking.
But Mr Obama is constrained by a hostile Congress keen to impose more sanctions on Iran, just as Mr Rouhani’s hands are tied by the intransigence of regime hardliners. And there has been no let up in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s defiant rhetoric against the “Great Satan”. Indeed, many observers assume the opportunity for a historic deal has already been missed.
While words can soften the political mood between long-time enemies and put domestic ones on notice, ultimately the fate of Iran’s nuclear negotiation comes down to numbers and technical details. As one Iranian observer says: “There’s no way for Rouhani or anyone else to make it all nice and tidy.”
The success of negotiations depends on political will, but that has to translate into numbers and technical concessions. It depends on how many centrifuges Iran will give up and on the extent of sanctions relief it can receive. It also depends on whether oil prices reach new lows and how far the government can sustain itself under sanctions. The right words and the right numbers could coincide, and a deal could pave the way for the love affair that Mr Rouhani and Mr Obama both apparently desire. Otherwise, Iranians will have to brace themselves for more heartache.