“Rouhani’s election is like resurrecting a dead corpse,” Mohammad Nourizad, Iranian dissident documentary film-maker and journalist, proclaimed[Pr.], after Hassan Rouhani, the 64-year-old moderate cleric won the Iranian presidential election on June 14, in a stunning landslide.
Nourizad was not alone in his assessment. Many, including the author, had lost hope that the election would produce a president that would get Iran out of its malaise, caused not only by a poor economy due to tough sanctions that the United States and its allies have imposed on Iran that have hurt the lives of tens of millions of Iranians, but also by vast corruption and nepotism during Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, social and political repression, and international isolation.
Rouhani ran on a platform that promised the Iranians a “government of prudence and hope”, and ever since his election he has been busy trying to deliver by resurrecting many other dead corpses, ranging from Iran’s economy that contracted by more than five percent last year, to re-opening the national Movie House that had been closed by the Ahmadinejad administration, and allowing some of the politically-active university students that had been expelled over the past several years to enrol again.
But, the most important dead corpse that Rouhani has been trying to revive is the US-Iran relations and the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. During the nationally-televised presidential debates on June 7, not only did Rouhani strongly criticise the nuclear diplomacy of the Ahmadinejad administration, but also declared repeatedly that he can resolve the diplomatic crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, while preserving Iran’s fundamental rights to peaceful nuclear technology.
Rouhani has made wholesale changes in Iran’s nuclear team, replacing the ideological group under Ahmadinejad with one filled by seasoned and moderate diplomats and nuclear experts.
The nuclear issue
In his first press conference after his election, Rouhani promised greater openness over Iran’s nuclear program, saying, “We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries,” adding, “We have to build trust.” To do so, Rouhani has made wholesale changes in Iran’s nuclear team, replacing the ideological group under Ahmadinejad with one filled by seasoned and moderate diplomats and nuclear experts.
Rouhani has appointed the highly respected, US-educated diplomat, Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif, as the foreign minister and transferred Iran’s nuclear dossier from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), controlled by the hardliners, to the foreign ministry. Zarif was instrumental in the formation of Afghanistan National Unity government in December 2001, for which he was praised by James Dobbins, the US representatives to the negotiations that led to the formation of the Afghan government. Both Rouhani and Zarif played key roles in the “grand bargain” proposal that Iran submitted to the George W Bush administration that addressed all major areas of conflict between the two countries, such as opening up Iran’s nuclear program for transparency, collaborating with the US in Iraq, restraining Hamas and Islamic jihad, and indirectly recognising Israel. But, the US rejected the proposal.
Rouhani has also removed Saeed Jalili, the hard-line chief nuclear negotiator who was secretary-general of the SNSC, and appointed in his place Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a moderate who was the minister of defence in President Mohammad Khatami’s administration. He has replaced Fereydoon Abbasi, an officer of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and the hard-line head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), with Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, the moderate former foreign minister who is a MIT-educated nuclear engineer and a former head of the AEOI. The hard-liner, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has been replaced with Reza Najafi, an experienced diplomat who told the IAEA Board of Governors on September 12 that Iran was ready to find ways to “overcome existing issues once and for all.
Rouhani is also an expert on the nuclear issue. He was Khatami’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005 and led the negotiations with Britain, France and Germany that led to the October 2003 Saadabad Declaration and the November 2004 Paris Agreement, in accordance with which Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program and voluntarily implemented the additional protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. He and Zarif proposed to the European trio to cap the number of Iran’s centrifuges (that enrich uranium) at 3000, but that was also rejected because the US did not want any centrifuges in Iran. The two agreements ultimately failed, even though Iran delivered its part of the agreements because, instead of rewarding Iran, the European trio demanded more concessions.
In an interview with Ann Curry of NBC News Rouhani spoke about the necessity of removing mistrust and suspicion between the US and Iran, and promised that Iran will do what it can to end the crisis in Syria, and praised the United States for not attacking Syria. In an op-ed published by the Washington Post, Rouhani declared,
“A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favourable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also sent several signals over the past few months, indicating that he, too, supports negotiations with the West, calling for ‘heroic flexibility’ in the negotiations.
In his speech at the UN on Tuesday, September 25, Rouhani declared, “Iran seeks to resolve problems, not to create them. Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defence doctrine.” He also stated that Iran is ready to negotiate with the West to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, and warned that the greatest danger to Middle East peace is chemical weapons falling into the hands of the terrorists fighting in Syria.
Rouhani and President Obama have also exchanged letters that have been described as positive and constructive. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also sent several signals over the past few months, indicating that he, too, supports negotiations with the West, calling for “heroic flexibility” in the negotiations. So, the stage is set for a diplomatic resolution of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Hawks in US and Israel
But, the hawks in the US Congress and hard-liners in Israel do not want any rapprochement with Iran. Binjamin Netanyahu has been totally dismissive of Rouhani’s moderate approach. He ordered Israel’s delegation to leave the UN General Assembly hall when Rouhani spoke (for which he was criticized by his own finance minister Yair Lapid). Netanyahu and other Israeli extremists are terrified by the fact that Rouhani’s moderate approach is having a very positive effect.
Just the day before both Obama and Rouhani spoke at the UN General Assembly meeting, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) wrote in a letter to the President, “Now is not the time to let up on this pressure. Removal of any existing sanctions must depend on Iran’s halting of its nuclear program. Conversely, the continuation or expansion of its nuclear activities will only lead to more sanctions led by the United States and our friends and allies.”
Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also sent a letter to Mr. Obama, pressing him to restate US policy towards Iran. “Like you, we viewed the election of Hassan Rouhani as an indicator of discontent among the Iranian people and we have taken note of recent diplomatic overtures by Iran. However, whatever nice words we may hear from Mr Rouhani, it is Iranian action that matters. Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise,” they wrote.
Iran too has its own hard-liners and hawks that reject any compromise with the US, particularly at a time when the US is threatening Syria, Iran’s strategic ally, with military attacks. Thus, for Rouhani to succeed, he must demonstrate to the Iranian hard-liners that his efforts for reaching out to the West, and in particular the US, can bear fruit. In his interview with the Washington Post, Rouhani alluded to the fact that he does not have much time to show that his moderate approach will yield results:
“The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short – and wrap it up. That is a decision of my government, that short [timeframe] is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is, the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s three months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s six months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years.”
A speedy resolution of the nuclear conflict that leads to lifting of at least some sanction was also the main point of an open letter to President Obama, signed by 511 Iranian intellectuals, academics (including the author), social and political activists, and former and current political prisoners, appealing to him and his administration to lift the sanctions. The letter said, in part,
“Mr. President, we call upon you to take advantage of [President] Rouhani’s presence in New York [to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly] to repair Iran-US relations and improve the regional prospects for peace, which require further co-operation between the two countries. This is an important historical opportunity that must not be exhausted. It is now the US’ turn and the international community’s to reciprocate Iran’s measures of goodwill and pursue a win-win strategy that encompasses the lifting of the unjust economic sanctions on Iran ….”
The danger in the false narrative that sanctions are the cause of Rouhani’s flexibility and moderation is that the Obama administration may be made to believe that the opportunity offered by Rouhani will last as long as the sanctions continue to hurt Iran’s economy.
Just as the anti-Iran forces in the US are trying to scuttle any possible agreement with Iran, so also are the Iranian hard-liners. Sobh-e Sadegh, the mouthpiece of the IRGC political directorate, criticized Rouhani’s op-ed [Pr.] in the Washington Post and his moderate tune. Sobh-e Sadegh also criticized [Pr.] the aforementioned letter by the 511 Iranian figures, accusing them of begging the US to lift its sanctions. Brigadier General Masoud Jazaeri, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces for defensive culture said, “Those who rest their hopes on the United States either do not know the US and the White House, or do not know politics.” He also said that “we must be pessimistic about the United States.”
Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy chief of the IRGC, declared that [Pr.] there is no flexibility in the force’s strategy for dealing with what he called “the enemies of the nezaam [political system],” adding that, “heroic flexibility does not imply putting the nation under unequal [inferior] conditions [with the enemy].” Ali Nazari, another IRGC officer and head of the Organisation for Preserving and Publishing the Works of the Sacred Defense [the war with Iraq from 1980-1988],” said “if someone plays in the enemy’s field, the IRGC will confront him.”
Mohammad Hossein Asfari, a member of the Majles‘ [parliament] national security and foreign policy commission, warned that [Pr.] the Majles will not approve of any “retreat from the nation’s inalienable rights for nuclear energy”, hence warning Rouhani that he cannot make too many concessions. Another member of the commission, Mohammad Kosari, said that [Pr.] Rouhani has a free hand only when it comes to the negotiations tactics, not Iran’s long-term strategy. Keyhan, the newspaper that is the mouthpiece of some of the security and intelligence forces, warned Rouhani that even shaking President Obama’s hand at the UN will be a grave error.
Sanctions must be lifted
Unlike what the American hawks claim, the economic sanctions are not the reason why Rouhani wants to reach an agreement with the West. Had he lost the elections, the pains of the crippling sanctions would still have been there, but there would have been no political opening to the West by whomever had won, because the other candidates for president were not moderates like Rouhani, but hard-liners. Rouhani’s pragmatism, moderate philosophy, and nationalism are the main driving force behind his desire to mend fences with the West.
At the same time, the danger in the false narrative that sanctions are the cause of Rouhani’s flexibility and moderation is that the Obama administration may be made to believe that the opportunity offered by Rouhani will last as long as the sanctions continue to hurt Iran’s economy. The hawks in Congress will also claim that more sanctions could produce more flexibility, whereas more sanctions and not lifting at least some of the existing ones will lead to the squandering of the opportunity offered by Rouhani, and finger pointing by the hardliners. If he cannot show anything for his efforts within a year, Iran’s hardliners will paralyse his administration, just as they did to Khatami’s.
Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, analyses developments in Iran for the website PBS/Frontline: Tehran Bureau.