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Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Iran Navigates the World
Iran Navigates the World
Table of Contents
  1. Foreword

Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks

In the midst of dispiriting events sweeping the region, Hassan Rouhani’s 4 August swearing in as Iran’s president offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope.

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I. Overview

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

Iran Navigates the World

In his prologue to The Geopolitics of Iran, edited by Francisco José B. S. Leandro, Carlos Branco, and Flavius Caba-Maria, our Middle East expert Joost Hiltermann says policymakers should come to grips with the country's lived experience to understand why dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to deal with the Islamic Republic.

Foreword

Imagine the view from Tehran. It is early 2021. You are an Iranian, with inherited memories of empire and conquest, yet also of foreign invasions and defeat; a citizen of a country isolated in the world, yet also a rising power accused of hegemonic ambitions, one that may be poorly managed but also has accumulated and deployed remarkable technical brainpower; you’re part of a population kept down by harsh economic sanctions but that has proved doggedly resilient; you’re saddled with a leadership that champions a revolutionary ideology, now fading, even as it projects its power across the region; and you belong to a society that veers between forbearance and protest, but is kept in check by a security apparatus that uses an effective blend of co-optation and naked repression to stay in power. 

This is Iran today – located on a geopolitical junction between the Asian and European continents, hemmed in between former Soviet republics, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Arab world, and commanding a strategic chokepoint – the Strait of Hormuz – through which flow one fifth of the world’s global oil consumption and a quarter of its LNG trade. The country is a magnet for foreign interests as it strives to escape its containment and attain its full potential, which it deems an entitlement after four decades of isolation.

For centuries, Iran has fought for its security and survival by warding off outside threats. For the same length of time it also has forged critical alliances with external powers to better insulate itself against such threats. It has had experience of foreign powers vying to partition the country into spheres of influence. Yet in the process it has perfected the art of divide and rule in confronting both internal and external challenges. Ever since its Islamic revolution, it has attempted to project its power into its neighbourhood, initially in Lebanon but also, in the more recent past, in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where it succeeded by capitalising on the weakness and mistakes of its adversaries. The 2011 Arab uprisings, and their destructive aftermath, proved a turning point as Arab states collapsed, creating a vacuum into which Iran, among others, was keen to step before one of its rivals would. It thus spread or deepened its influence partly by design but mainly by default, either way terrifying its enemies.

Its main strategy in the region, from the days it established Hezbollah in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has been to court local non-state allies, and to arm and train them. For this it used the Qods Force, an expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pasdaran, commanded by Qasem Soleimani until his killing in an American drone strike in January 2020. 

That attack was part of an unremitting U.S. effort to keep Iran leashed, which started with the Islamic revolution and hostage crisis more than 40 years ago. Even the Obama administration, which sought to overcome the bitter legacy of the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the embassy hostage-taking, and ongoing sparring in the Middle East and beyond, remained intent on keeping Iran contained. 

The next administration, led by Donald Trump, went back to the old way, throwing the nuclear accord President Obama had negotiated out of the window, re-imposing sanctions, and endeavouring to clip Iran’s regional power projection through economic coercion and military deterrence. This campaign, dubbed “maximum pressure”, further impoverished a population already stressed by a badly run economy while failing to achieve any of its stated objectives: further limiting Iran’s nuclear program, reducing its footprint in the region, destabilising the country, and forcing its leadership back to the negotiating table on far less favourable terms.

To the contrary, Iran appeared undeterred, if perturbed, by sanctions and setbacks, which merely re-empowered the hard-line elements of its political class. It lashed out at the U.S. and its allies in the region, displaying an astute sense of how close to the limit it could take an escalation short of precipitating a full-throated U.S. military response. On the nuclear front, it countered new U.S. sanctions by incrementally violating the nuclear deal, but it made clear its steps were reversible and that indeed it would reverse them should the Trump administration or its successor come around or the Europeans decide to compensate Iran. The arrival of the Biden administration seemed to offer a new opening. 

The experience of both the Obama and Trump years shows that the Islamic Republic is here to stay unless one of two things happens: a violent overthrow by the United States and its allies, or its collapse in a popular uprising. Neither scenario appears likely. The 2003 Iraq invasion showed the limits of U.S. power in the region, and even laid bare its vulnerabilities through the consequences it unintentionally unleashed: the empowerment of jihadist groups. The U.S. learned an important lesson, which it heeded in subsequent discussions about the wisdom of using American power in the pursuit of regime change and state rebuilding in Libya and Syria. And while a significant segment of the Iranian population may be thoroughly fed up with the clerical leadership – there is every indication many people are – they appear to have neither the means to effectively counter a deeply entrenched repressive security apparatus nor a viable alternative.

It is an axiom of international relations that one negotiates with one’s enemy. As long as the notion that the Islamic Republic will somehow disappear remains as fanciful as it is today, Iran and its adversaries will have to find ways to accommodate one another. This requires dialogue and diplomacy. From their side, the Iranians have proved to be as capable as diplomats as they have been in military affairs, and have shown they can effectively combine the two. The United States, by contrast, has shown inconsistency and, at least in the last four years, an unhealthy resort to coercion as the only way of dealing with Iran. A return to such an approach, during the Biden administration or the one succeeding it, might well deliver a self-fulfilling prophecy: the further rise of a vengeful power, nurtured by the resourcefulness that its long isolation forced it to develop, now with explicitly hegemonic ambitions and an ability to disrupt an oil-dependent global economy.

There is much to recommend the volume in front of you. Its main objective is to show why and how Iran has been and remains a relevant actor in the international order, and particularly in the context of the Middle East – a regional power we ignore at our peril. To accomplish this, this volume: addresses Iran’s intertwined interests and perceptions, basing the country’s foreign policy-making on its religion-inspired ideology and four-decade enmity with the United States; examines Iran’s relations with states in its wider neighbourhood, as well as with world powers – China, the European Union and Russia, in addition to the United States; and offers an array of scholarly views on the many and various aspects of Iran’s durability in an unsparing world. 

In doing so, this volume offers a window on Iran looking in, providing a glimpse of a nation’s lived experience. It is as close as we can come to a firm grasp of how such an experience can be lived in the first place. May it serve a global audience that values the importance of reciprocal understanding as the foundation for sound decision-making in the management of inter-state relations.