By Mick Krever, CNN
Portraying Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a genuine pragmatist, Former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed optimism to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday that a nuclear deal with the West was possible.
Direct nuclear talks, ushered in by the election of Rouhani earlier this year, began Tuesday in Geneva.
Straw, as foreign secretary, worked closely on the nuclear file with Rouhani, when he was head of nuclear negotiations under President Mohammad Khatami.
“You could do business with him, and we were able to do business with him,” Straw told Amanpour. “I very profoundly believe that [this] is a new chance for proper negotiations.”
Sceptics in the West, and Israel, have welcomed President Rouhani’s words but said they need to see actions – a sentiment mirrored in Iran when talking about the West.
“President Rouhani is an Iranian and he represents Iran’s national interest, so people have got to factor that in, and it’s entirely right that he should do that,” Straw said.
During the last round of substantive negotiations, Straw told Amanpour, President Rouhani was “caught in a kind of crossfire of forces.”
Those forces, Straw added, “may now have been more settled within Iran, not least because the economic situation is much more serious as a consequence, partly, of the economic sanctions.”
Another contributor: The fact that President Rouhani has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei to pursue direct negotiations, as Rouhani himself told Amanpour in an interview just weeks ago.
President Mohammed Khatami did not enjoy that backing.
“Yes, there are people – particularly in the United States – who don’t trust the Iranians,” Straw said. “But there are also plenty in Iran who regardless of their politics – for very, very good reasons – don’t trust the Americans and to a degree don’t trust the Brits either.”
“So there’s got to be a two-way street here,” he told Amanpour. “Moreover, Doctor Rouhani may be in a more powerful position than president Khatami was, but he’s got his own quite difficult backyard politically to handle. And one of the things I hope we don’t get caught by is the American Administration having to keep turning, looking over its shoulder at the pressure from Israel.”
Many in Israel and some in Iran, Straw said, would like to see Iran completely suspend nuclear enrichment.
But Iran is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, under which countries have a right to enrich uranium to non-weapons-grade levels, for civilian use.
If negotiations could “run into difficulty” it could be because of this issue, Straw said. Negotiators in Geneva, he added, should “take Doctor Rouhani at his word” that Iran is not looking to develop a nuclear weapon.
But, he told Amanpour, “I say this very much as a friend of Iran – there has been a consistent record, I’m afraid, of under disclosure or late disclosure of what Iran have been doing in terms of its nuclear activities.”
Therefore, rather than get stuck on civilian enrichment, “it seems to me that the much more fruitful avenue to pursue is how you build up confidence by more extensive and intrusive inspections of what the Iranians are actually doing.”
Indeed, he said, he has seen an “unconfirmed report” that Iran in the negotiations has offered to allow much more intrusive inspections over the next six months, as a confidence-building measure.
“It involves really bold steps by both sides, but the prize is huge,” Straw said of negotiations. “Iran, objectively, is a natural ally of the international community and the West if we could resolve this.”
“Not to turn Iran into a kind of cats’ paw of the West, but recognizing and respecting its strategic and regional importance – it would make relations with Afghanistan, relations with Iraq, and a potential solution to Syria conflict that much easier to secure.”