Though no guarantee that change will come, the election of Hassan Rowhani as president of Iran is cause for cautious optimism over ongoing efforts to reign in the state’s controversial nuclear program. From a Western perspective, the 64-year-old moderate cleric’s election came as a pleasant surprise. Although Rowhani was the most moderate candidate of those allowed to run, there is reason to believe he may be given some degree of latitude with regard to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program because of his status as a longtime regime insider as well as his promises to improve the Iranian economy through sanctions relief. For this reason, the U.S. and its partners should be willing to seize this moment as a potential opportunity, but should approach the situation carefully and realistically, keeping in mind that the failure to capitalize now to move toward a nuclear deal could result in a loss of momentum that would be hard to replace.
The Guardian Council’s choice to allow Rowhani to compete in the 2013 election demonstrates that while he may not have been the regime’s first choice for president, he also was not considered an entirely unattractive candidate. We can conclude from this that Rowhani enjoys a relatively high level of trust from the elite –critically, that of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After all, even Iran’s former president was barred from the final cut. Rowhani’s participation in regime politics dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was one of two representatives of the Supreme Leader to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for 16 years. Held in high regard, Rowhani became the regime’s first nuclear envoy in 2003. Further illustrating his trust of the new president, the Supreme Leader recently urged all government bodies to support Rowhani. Rowhani and Khamenei have largely echoed each other in the past few months – each decrying the state of the floundering Iranian economy and the need for sanctions relief to improve it.
If Rowhani is given the leeway to negotiate on his own terms, however, do not expect the new president and his team to voluntarily make concessions. Rowhani is a seasoned diplomat who is committed to preserving Iran’s right to uranium enrichment. In a 2004 speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, Rowhani declared that Iran’s nuclear program “is good for our international reputation and shows that we…have been successful in the area of technology…” Rowhani’s legacy as the individual who “sold out” Iran’s nuclear interests in 2003 by agreeing to a freeze of uranium enrichment may further constrain his ability to offer serious concessions, especially as anti-Americanism is a pillar of the regime’s ideology. Also, although the Supreme Leader and Rowhani appear in concert at the moment, all final decisions on the regime’s nuclear program rest with the former.
Yet there is reason for optimism. International sanctions, led by the U.S., have enacted a heavy toll on Iran, as Iranian oil exports have been curbed, the country is increasingly isolated from the international banking system, and the Iranian currency has plummeted in value. A new round of sanctions, designed to further “isolate Iran from the global economy” was signed on in a June executive order and set to begin July 1. A bill currently in the House, H.R. 850 introduced in February, would add another batch of sanctions. Perhaps the best evidence that sanctions are beginning to put pressure on the regime was the Ayatollah’s instructing of candidates to “pay due attention to the economy which has turned into a scene of imposed challenge with aliens.” Importantly, Khamenei does seem to believe that the solution to this challenge is through negotiations.
Even more optimism can be gleaned from Rowhani’s previous statements and background. In a 2006 letter to Time magazine, the cleric declared that a “nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region. And…an Iranian bomb will accord Iran no security dividends.” Similarly, during a presidential debate, Rowhani argued, “It is good to have centrifuges running – provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running.” More important than words, Rowhani’s former nuclear negotiating team was “Western-educated, came from merchant backgrounds, and favored improved ties with America.” Rowhani, with the Ayatollah’s support, has proposed one-on-one talks with the U.S. to obtain sanctions relief.
The recent statements of Rowhani and Khamenei signal the Iranian regime’s willingness to come back to the table with the intent to strike a deal for sanctions relief. While constrained, Rowhani, as a familiar face in regime politics, appears to have the Supreme Leader’s support. This fact, paired with the president-elect’s determination to obtain sanctions relief breathes new hope into the possibility of striking a deal to curb Iranian nuclear activities. Rowhani will look to balance his society’s need for sanctions relief with the regime’s nuclear ambitions. For this reason, the U.S. and its partners must offer quick and substantial sanctions relief in exchange for meaningful concessions on the part of Iran. The Obama administration as well as Congress should wait to pass any additional sanctions and demonstrate their intention to engage seriously with Iran. Further, the international community will have to be prepared to accept Iranian self-enrichment of uranium in return for a lesser degree of enrichment plus inspections. Rhetoric of regime change by some elements in the West will have to be put on the backburner so as to not damage Rowhani’s political standing. While Rowhani is no Gorbachev, he is no Ahmadinejad either. This president may be someone we can work with to eliminate the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.