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Rohani To Court Russian, Chinese Support At SCO Summit Over Iran Nuclear Crisis

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has previously served as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator (second from right), here with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (left), French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (second left), and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (right) during nuclear talks in 2003.
Iran's new president might seem to be taking a humble role on the world stage by debuting at a summit where Tehran only has observer status.

But by attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting on September 13 in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, Hassan Rohani has an opportunity to directly advance his most urgent foreign-policy priority.

That is to build international support for his declared intention to resume "serious" talks with the P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany -- in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, says he wants to free Iran from economic sanctions by restoring the trust of the world powers in its nuclear program. So far he has offered few specifics, saying only that he wants to conduct "win-win" negotiations while not giving up "one bit" of Iran's nuclear rights.

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Now the SCO summit offers him an opportunity to outline his plans privately to the leaders of the two world powers most likely to give him a sympathetic hearing. Both Russia and China, which comprise the SCO along with four Central Asian states, have important economic ties with Iran, so the regional forum could hardly be a better place to seek their support.

"The Iranians very much want the nuclear talks to be resumed as soon as possible," says Scott Lucas, an Iranian-affairs expert at Britain's Birmingham University. "Rohani is fighting a battle against other hard-liners in the [Iranian] regime in that he not only wants the talks to resume but he would like to really get a genuine negotiation with the 5+1 powers, especially the U.S. and European powers, rather than have a showdown at [future] talks."

Domestic Resistance

Gaining Moscow and Beijing's support could help Rohani convince hard-liners at home -- as well as Western powers -- that he is able to settle the Iranian nuclear crisis. He recently took a major step in Tehran toward acquiring more authority to do so by moving Iran's negotiating effort out of an office which reports directly to Iran's supreme leader and into the Foreign Ministry, which reports to the presidency instead.

But Lucas says Rohani still faces domestic resistance, particularly from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is fighting a propaganda battle against him in the media. Rohani has angered hard-liners by implying their uncompromising approach in past negotiations is responsible for Iran's suffering under sanctions. But he has to proceed carefully to assure that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has consistently favored a hard-line approach, does not intervene and block him.

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Rohani's visit to Bishkek comes as the P5+1 have not met with Iran since April, when talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan ended with both sides too far apart to agree on when to meet again. Five months later a resumption date has yet to be set.

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As he goes to the SCO, Rohani can feel confident of winning at least some support from his hosts. Shortly after his election in June, Russia urged the West to soften sanctions against Iran.

On September 11, Russia's "Kommersant" daily reported that President Vladimir Putin is ready to sign a deal in Bishkek with Rohani to build a second reactor for Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant. It also reported Putin will renew an old offer to supply Iran with five ground-to-air missile systems. The sophisticated systems, versions of the S-300 capable of shooting down planes and missiles, would boost Iran's ability to defend against attacks, including on its nuclear sites.

Syria Factor

Nonetheless, analysts say Rohani has to be careful not to seek too much in Bishkek.

According to Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based nuclear policy expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tehran would like Russia and China to publicly declare Iran's right to uranium enrichment.

But such support is a "red line" for Western powers and would sabotage the prospects for talks even before they resume.

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"When President Rohani goes to the meeting in Bishkek, he will have to walk a fine line between soliciting support from the Chinese and Russians for his efforts to inject the diplomacy with some more credibility and more energy vis-a-vis his own hard-liners," says Hibbs. "But, at the same time, he has to be aware that if the Russians and the Chinese go too far in that direction then we are setting up a situation where Russia and China, particularly Russia, could come into conflict with the Western states in the negotiating process."

There is an additional reason for Rohani to push this week in Bishkek for new support for nuclear talks, and that is to assure the talks are not indefinitely delayed by the heightening tensions over another crisis: Syria.

The Syrian crisis is particularly tricky for Tehran because it is Damascus's closest ally and any Western-Syrian showdown translates directly into greater Western-Iranian hostility. It did not go unnoticed in Tehran that U.S. officials arguing for the need to respond forcefully to the use of chemical weapons in Syria said punitive action would send a message not only to Damascus to not use weapons of mass destruction but also to Iran.

Perhaps for this reason Iran lost no time in saying that it backs Russia's proposal to preempt U.S.-led military strikes by placing Syria's chemical weapons under UN control for destruction.

Any military action against Syria would raise temperatures in both Washington and Tehran and make it all but certain constructive nuclear talks could not take place.