Iran's choice

We should be optimistic about the new President
July 18, 2013

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President Hassan Rouhani: it is “wise to be optimistic” about his election

When the west started to impose economic sanctions on Iran, it argued that the object was to punish the Iranian regime in the hope of forcing it to respond to international demands over its nuclear programme. It was asserted confidently that it would not affect the ordinary lives of ordinary civilians. But if that was the purpose, sanctions have failed. Iran’s economy is collapsing. There is mass unemployment and shortages in food and medical supplies. The civilians are desperate but Iran’s nuclear programme is still booming and its regime implacable. The inherent problem is that Iran and the west have diametrically opposed interests. With a history of profound mutual distrust, it is no wonder we have reached the 10th anniversary of almost futile negotiations. Each side is making demands that the other finds impossible to accept. The maximum concessions that Iran has been prepared to offer in exchange for the removal of sanctions have so far been less than the minimum that the international community is prepared to accept. Before Iran can be welcomed back in to the international community, deals must be struck that help to solve the problems of Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah. Despite initial excitement at the recent election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, sceptics have been quick to dismiss a supposed moderate as incapable of bringing about significant change to the current stalemate. The effectiveness of his presidency has been dismissed from the start, on the grounds that he will merely be the smiling and acceptable face of a theocratic regime run by ultra-conservative clerics. But, on the contrary, this is someone who is capable of understanding these conflicting interests and has the skills to achieve balance. In reality, electing Rouhani was a message from the disillusioned Iranian people, but it was also a message from those who did not seek to block his path to power. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council chose not to oppose his candidacy or back a particular candidate, in striking contrast to the elections of 2009. The Iranian people gave Rouhani a landslide victory but it was Khamenei and his inner circle that let them do so. For over 30 years, Rouhani has worked closely and in sympathy with the Supreme Leader. He is a trusted and well-respected member of the political and religious elite. His successful candidacy was no accident. The real test for Rouhani lies in his negotiating skills. Can he convince Khamenei to amend the nuclear policy, and the west to ease sanctions? He believes he can do both. Khamenei has the final word on nuclear policy but even he stated in March that he would not oppose nuclear talks, indicating how his political moods and those of his President do not clash, unlike Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In allowing Rouhani to be elected, Khamenei may be signalling his willingness to repair frayed relations at home and abroad. To arrive at any diplomatic resolution, Rouhani would have to persuade both parties to moderate their demands: the west to relax its sanctions and recognise Iran’s right to civilian use of nuclear energy and Iran to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency regulations, by allowing inspectors unfettered access to all of their nuclear facilities. Rouhani has promised to demonstrate greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear programme, learning that creating an atmosphere of secrecy around this subject creates hysteria in the west and Israel. Rouhani is insisting that a constructive balance can be reached at home and abroad: that he can uphold Iran’s Islamic traditions while loosening the state grip on media censorship, sexual discrimination and civil liberties; that he can negotiate with the west without relinquishing Iran’s nuclear programme. After his election he made his position on domestic and foreign policy clear: “it is neither surrender nor conflict, neither passivity nor confrontation. Moderation is effective and constructive interaction.” Rouhani has pledged to fight for Iran’s right to enrich uranium. John Kerry argued that the demand of George W Bush’s administration that Tehran stop enrichment was “ridiculous because Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. [The Iranian people] have a right to peaceful use of nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.” Rouhani understands the precarious situation his country is in, noting how other countries in the region “miscalculated their positions and you have witnessed what happened to them.” There was a time in 2001 when the United States and Iran came together constructively to help to bring about peace in Afghanistan. Iran joined the world in expressing sorrow and condemnation after the 9/11 attacks and pledged to work unconditionally with the US on the war on terror. But Bush closed those doors when he included Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Iran has influence and authority. It holds many of the cards to help to stabilise Syria, principally with its considerable sway over Hezbollah. Engaging with Iran and using this influence could be a significant confidence-building measure rather than isolating and pressuring the country further. If Rouhani was almost able to bring a diplomatic agreement in 2003, while being Iran’s nuclear adviser, he could achieve much more as President. It would be wise to be optimistic about these electoral results and irresponsible to dismiss the opportunity they present.