Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Middle East Briefing N°36
13 Aug 2013
This briefing is also available in Farsi.
In a region that recently has produced virtually nothing but bad news, Hassan Rouhani’s 4 August swearing in as Iran’s president offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope. There are still far more questions than answers: about the extent of his authority; his views on his country’s nuclear program, with which he long has been associated; and the West’s ability to display requisite flexibility and patience. But, although both sides can be expected to show caution, now is the time to put more ambitious proposals on the table, complement the multilateral talks with a bilateral U.S.-Iranian channel and expand the dialogue to encompass regional security issues.
Given his blunt criticism of the country’s trajectory, notably on the nuclear file, Rouhani’s election stunned almost all observers, and so one ought to be modest in offering retrospective interpretations of his victory. His promise of change arguably appealed to an electorate that traditionally has seized on presidential contests to try to turn the page; his more conservative rivals were deeply divided and burdened with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s desultory record; and the leadership’s quest for renewed legitimacy after the hit suffered in the controversial 2009 elections possibly led it to accept the triumph of a strong critic. Too, one could speculate that Rouhani’s success ultimately serves Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s interests, helping both to restore domestic faith in elections, one of the Islamic Republic’s political linchpins, and to reduce international pressure at a time when sanctions are inflicting unprecedented economic pain.
Questions about how Iran got to this place are overshadowed, however, by speculation regarding where it might go from here. Some, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, see Rouhani as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, the gentle façade of a regime whose nuclear ambitions have not changed one iota; others would like to view him as the saviour charged with extricating Iran from its predicament, agreeing to far-reaching nuclear concessions in exchange for commensurate sanctions relief. In this respect as well, a healthy dose of humility is required given the opaqueness of the Islamic Republic’s decision-making.
Several elements nonetheless can be of utility in seeking to make predictions. The first has to do with the nature of Iranian politics. Presidents are far from all-powerful, having to contend with myriad competing centres of authority and influence, overt and covert, of which the Supreme Leader is only the most obvious. Fundamentals have not changed: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains final say; friction between him and the president is all but inevitable; and factionalism will remain both a fact of life and a means of constraining Rouhani. At the same time, presidents are not mere figureheads; witness the differences in style and substance between Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Ahmadinejad.
Secondly, Rouhani is far from an unknown. He has been a fixture of the Islamic Republic since its beginnings, a consummate insider with a track record and voluminous writings. Those offer some clues regarding his preferred approach. He brought about the first and only nuclear agreement with the West, a significant achievement given the depths of mutual mistrust, yet he also openly justified the accord as allowing Iran to complete its nuclear infrastructure even while negotiating. He has bluntly criticised his successors, yet has focused more on their bluster and reckless negotiating style than on their ultimate goals. His negotiating experience also carries mixed messages: that he feels the West let him down, causing him to suffer bitter criticism at home, may well prompt him to greater caution. In particular, at a time when the U.S. and EU are intent on limiting the extent of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Rouhani could be more inclined to offer concessions regarding that program’s transparency than its scope.
That suggests a third point. The change in presidents will usher in important changes in style and negotiating tactics but certainly will not bring about significant changes in Iran’s bottom line demands: recognition of its right to enrich and meaningful sanctions relief. A deal today is thus harder to imagine than when Rouhani last was in charge of the nuclear dossier. Positions have hardened; trust has diminished; the nuclear program has substantially advanced; and sanctions have proliferated. Western doubts about Rouhani’s ability to deliver are matched by Tehran’s scepticism that the U.S. in particular can accept a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic or that President Barak Obama has the political muscle to lift sanctions.
Such misgivings are unavoidable but should not be paralysing. Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) have become stale; now is as promising a time as is likely to occur to refresh them. This could be achieved in three interlocking ways: altering the substance of a possible deal, combining a confidence-building agreement on Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment with presentation of the contours of a possible nuclear endgame, as Crisis Group has proposed; modifying modalities of the negotiations by complementing multilateral discussions with confidential, bilateral U.S.-Iranian engagement; and expanding the scope of those talks to include regional security matters.
The promise embodied by Rouhani’s election can grow or quickly fizzle. As he takes office and comes face to face with myriad domestic and foreign challenges, it would be a good idea for the West to encourage him to move in the right direction.
Washington/Brussels, 13 August 2013