Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is grabbing international headlines right now. But everyone involved in foreign policy knows the real concern about weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is Iran, a country that for years has refused to dismantle its nuclear program.
In an unexpected development, recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rohani is reportedly ready to shut down one of its three nuclear sites if the United States and its allies were willing to lift economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. The German magazine Der Spiegel also reported that Rohani is willing to allow international monitors to oversee the dismantling of the plant.
The German report follows a comment from Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who said yesterday that he hoped to achieve a "win-win" result at an upcoming United Nations conference on nuclear weapons. He did not give any details about what Iran was willing to give up.
If the reports are accurate, Rohani's about face would represent the most substantial progress made toward Iran's disarmament in years. It would also bolster the argument of those in the international community who argue the he's open to more friendly relations with the West.
But it’s also an acknowledgement of just how effective Western sanctions have been in crippling the Iranian economy. According to reports, the only way for Iran to avoid bankruptcy is for the sanctions to be lifted. Inflation rose 40 percent in the first four months of 2013. According to Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins, the value of Iran’s rial reached an all-time low earlier this year.
“It is clear that Iranians do not trust their government to deliver economic stability," he wrote in a blog post at the time. "In consequence, the rial continues to tumble with increasing volatility, and inflationary pressures continue to mount."
If Rohani is truly willing to negotiate, it would be a diplomatic victory for the White House. President Obama repeatedly said that the sanctions would be effective. Apparently, they have been. It also bolsters Obama’s position to go to the United Nations on Syria as opposed to confronting Assad alone.
Rohani’s concessions hardly represent the end of Iran’s nuclear program. There are two other active nuclear sites, at Natanz and Isfahan, as well as a new heavy water processing facility set to come online at Arak next year.
But his concession does represent a good faith gesture from Iran to the West. The door between the two has been shut for nearly a decade. In Der Spiegel is right, Rohani has just cracked it open.