WASHINGTON D.C. — The surprise victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s Jun. 14 election has provoked a range of reactions here, ranging from cautious optimism about possible détente between Tehran and Washington to outright rejection of the notion that his presidency will produce any substantive change in policy, foreign or domestic.
While most Iran specialists fall into the former category, neo-conservatives and other pro-Israel forces insist that even if the president-elect wanted to be more forthcoming on western demands to curb Tehran’s nuclear program and other concerns, he would still be overruled by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and other powerful hard-line interests.
Echoing concerns voiced by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the latter also expressed worry that Rouhani’s more “moderate” image – especially in contrast to the belligerence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – may lull western governments into making undesirable concessions.
“The search for a ‘moderate’ Iranian leader has beguiled every American president since the revolution of 1979,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s neo-conservative editorial board. “But the hunt for the unicorn seems destined to begin again with the breathless reporting that Iranians have elected 64-year-old cleric Hassan Rohani as their next president.”
President Barack Obama himself no doubt added to those concerns Monday when, after a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland, he told reporters that the two leaders “expressed cautious optimism that with a new election [in Iran], we may be able to move forward on a dialogue that allows us to resolve the problems with Iran’s nuclear program”.
Rouhani’s first-round victory, with just under 51 percent of the vote in a field of six candidates, came as a surprise to all but a few analysts here. Most expected a candidate, notably Tehran’s current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, with the hard-line views that are believed to reflect those of Khamenei, to triumph whether by the actual vote tally or by the kind of ballot rigging that many believe occurred in the contested 2009 election.
While Rouhani, who has several degrees including a doctorate from Caledonian University in Glasgow, has held senior foreign-policy positions in the regime – among them, the nuclear file under reformist President Mohammad Khatami – he was openly critical of Tehran’s recent diplomacy, particularly over its nuclear program, during the election campaign.
“We have to calculate our national interests,” he said shortly before the election. “It’s nice for the centrifuges to run, but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run,” a reference to the impact of U.S. and western sanctions aimed at “crippling” Iran’s economy.
Rouhani, who will assume the presidency in August, gained the strong backing of both Khatami and former President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist whose own candidacy had been disqualified by the Guardian Council. Both leaders had also called for major changes in Iran’s foreign policy, including the regime’s handling of negotiations with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) over the nuclear program.
Most Iran experts believe Rouhani’s victory offers a major opportunity for progress in those negotiations. They note that he persuaded Khamenei to go along with a voluntary suspension of Iran’s enrichment-related and reprocessing activities while trying to negotiate an accord with the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany).
In 2006, in his capacity as Khamenei’s representative on the regime’s Supreme National Security Council, he published a detailed offer in TIME magazine that included accepting strict limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment and enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight of Iran’s nuclear-related facilities – only to be rejected by the administration of former President George W. Bush.
A key Rouhani subordinate when he headed the nuclear file, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, has worked continuously on the terms of a nuclear accord ever since he was accused of treason by the Ahmadinejad government and fled the country to accept a post at Princeton University. Most recently, he has emphasized that Iran must accept “the maximum level of transparency in cooperation with the IAEA” – a theme that Rouhani also stressed during a press conference in Tehran Monday.
“It’s not too outrageous to suspect that Mousavian will return to Iran,” according to Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, who described Rouhani’s tone and style as the “anti-Ahmadinejad”. “There’s a continuity that is very real. Mousavian has argued there’s a deal to be made; it just takes some goodwill on both sides.”
Other Iran experts agree that Rouhani’s election makes a deal substantially more possible than it would have been had Jalili, whose platform stressed “resistance” to western demands, been elected.
But they argue that Washington must also be prepared to make concessions in order to persuade Khamenei to go along, especially in light of the fact that the United States has previously rejected Rouhani’s overtures.
“Rouhani’s election presents the United States and its partners with a test – of our intentions and seriousness about reaching an agreement,” wrote Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran who served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East from 2000 to 2005, the period of Rouhani’s greatest influence over Iran’s nuclear policy.
“Failure of the test will confirm suspicions in Tehran that we do not want a deal and instead are stringing along negotiations while waiting for the sanctions to wreak more damage,” he wrote on his nationalinterest.org blog.
“Passage of the test will require placing on the table a proposal that, in return for the desired restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, incorporates significant relief from economic sanctions and at least tacit acceptance of a continued peaceful Iranian nuclear program, to include low-level enrichment of uranium,” according to Pillar.
Describing Rouhani’s victory as a “game-changer”, Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argued that Washington must be willing to offer substantial sanctions relief in order to strike a deal.
“For the past eight years, U.S. policy has relied on pressure – threats of war and international economic sanctions – rather than incentives to change Iran’s calculus. Continuing with that approach will be counterproductive. It will not provide Rowhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks,” he wrote on foreignpolicy.com.
But such thinking is precisely what worries neo-conservatives and leaders of the Israel lobby.
The White House “no doubt will ramp up its beseeching diplomacy to strike a nuclear deal with the Rohani government”, the Journal’s editorial writers warned Monday. “President Obama is desperate to find some agreement to avoid having to launch a military strike. Expect Mr. Rohani to go along for the talks, but mainly to ease Western sanctions and buy more nuclear time.”
The same forces are similarly worried about the replacement of Ahmadinejad by a less bombastic and far more sophisticated Iranian president.
In a blog entitled “Rooting for Jalili”, Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, wrote that the same logic that led him to support Ahmadinejad’s re-election four years ago applied to this election.
It “is better to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahamdinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking (the 2009 moderate candidate Mir-Hossein) Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep, even as thousands of centrifuges whir away”, he concluded.