Rowhani’s first diplomatic success, and possibly his last

Iranian election results have already sparked a new debate in the West about the future of sanctions and the need for diplomacy, but has anything really changed?

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani at a press conference, in Tehran on June 17, 2013. (photo credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani at a press conference, in Tehran on June 17, 2013. (photo credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Hailing his election as a “victory over extremism,” Iran’s new president-elect Hasan Rowhani can already chalk up one major political success six weeks before taking office: the rekindling of the debate in the West over diplomacy and sanctions.

Rowhani’s victory was resounding: 50.7% of the vote, followed in distant second-place by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf at 16.6%.

It was a victory for “intelligence, moderation,” and other noble attributes, Rowhani gushed after the results of the vote were publicized Friday.

While Western governments generally adopted a “wait-and-see” posture, Rowhani’s assessment of the significance of his election has found some adherents in the West. As the Iranian negotiator who brokered the freeze in the country’s nuclear program in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rowhani is seen by some Westerners as offering a potential “reset” — and the first glimmer of hope in a long time — for the stalled diplomatic track.

That hope has led some in Washington, and elsewhere around the world, to begin to make a case for a more conciliatory Western stance toward Iran.

One of the more influential analysts taking that position was Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Nasr argued on Sunday that, “as a reformist, Rowhani is an outsider, weaker than outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran’s suspicious conservative establishment.”

That weakness called into question the rationale of the sanctions regime, Nasr wrote. “Escalating economic pressure on Iran is popular in America, while the appearance of conceding to Iran is not,” he argued, but the “default strategy” of sanctions “could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue.”

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, suggested “the United States…will need to understand, for example, that [Rowhani] will need to demonstrate to Iranians that he can produce tangible rewards for diplomatic overtures. That means that Washington should be prepared to offer significant sanctions relief in exchange for any concessions on the nuclear issue.”

Colin Kahl, a former Obama administration deputy defense secretary for the Middle East, enthusiastically tweeted various calls for US diplomatic gestures, together with a Time Magazine op-ed from 2006 penned by none other than Rowhani himself. 

Rowhani began the op-ed apparently rejecting the need for an Iranian nuclear weapon. “A nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region. And taking account of [the] US nuclear arsenal and its policy of ensuring a strategic edge for Israel, an Iranian bomb will accord Iran no security dividends,” Rowhani explained.

Some made the case for concessions. Others pointed to Rowhani’s complete identification with the ayatollahs’ regime and its goals.

“For 16 years starting in 1989, Mr. Rowhani served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. During his tenure on the council, Mr. Rowhani led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime evade Western scrutiny of its nuclear-weapons program,” Wall Street Journal writer and Iran analyst Sohrab Ahmari wrote on Monday. “During the campaign, he boasted of how during his tenure as negotiator Iran didn’t suspend enrichment — on the contrary, ‘we completed the program.’ And on Syria, expect Mr. Rowhani to back the ruling establishment’s pro-Assad policy. ‘Syria has constantly been on the front line of fighting Zionism and this resistance must not be weakened,’ he declared in January, according to the state-run Press TV.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) called Rowhani a “regime loyalist” and urged the international community to provide sanctions relief “only after Tehran takes concrete positive steps to halt its nuclear activities. Until that time, the United States should maintain a steady policy that couples a genuine willingness to negotiate with increased sanctions pressure.”

Some critics have used Rowhani’s own rhetorical record against him. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) tweeted on Tuesday a 2005 speech in which the new president-elect suggested his diplomatic efforts had been a ruse to cover for the continued advancement of the nuclear program.

“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran” about suspending enrichment, “we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” one of the nuclear enrichment sites, Rowhani said.

He also hinted the program’s ultimate goal was to develop the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran was already at “the point where everybody knows that, if we decide to end the suspension, we will be able to have 3.5 percent enriched uranium within a few months’ time,” he explained, and added that a “country that can enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent,” the amount required for a nuclear weapon.

Iran’s key strategy was to advance its nuclear program until the world was forced to accept it as a fait accompli, Rowhani said. “If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice — that we do possess the technology — then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them.”

For their part, Western government officials were more reserved in recent days.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was among the more eager proponents of renewed talks. “I remain firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership toward a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.”

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, meanwhile, was the most strident critic of the new president-elect, dismissing Rowhani as “another of Ayatollah Khamenei’s puppets in the tragic and dangerous pantomime that is life for all Iranians.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration avoided making significant comments in either direction. Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough promised on Sunday that “if [Rowhani] lives up to his obligations under the UN Security Council resolution to come clean on this illicit nuclear program, he will find a partner in us, and there will be an opportunity for that.”

After a meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that both leaders agreed “that the aftermath of the Iranian election provides an opportunity to explore whether a diplomatic solution can be reached to the Iranian nuclear issue.”

The wait-and-see attitude was perhaps best encapsulated in State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s response to a journalist during a press briefing on Monday.

Asked if the US saw Rowhani as “cut of the same cloth” as the more conservative candidates in the Iranian elections, Psaki said, “[I]t’s too early to say what his policies will be. We look forward to him and are hopeful that he will fulfill the campaign promises he made to the Iranian people, such as expanding personal freedoms, releasing political prisoners and improving Iran’s relations with the international community. But time will tell…. The ball is in Iran’s court; they know what they need to do.”

In the end, Rowhani’s election may change little. Already the official responses indicate a kind of blinking contest. While the US has indicated it is waiting for an Iranian response to past talks, Rowhani indicated on Monday that he has his own preconditions before talks can move forward.

“Firstly, as stipulated in the Algiers Accord, the Americans must state that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs,” Rowhani said, according to the official Press TV. “Second, they [must] recognize all the inalienable rights of the Iranian nation, including the nuclear one; and third they [must] abolish unilateral and bullying policies toward Iran, and … when such conditions [are met], the way will be paved [for talks].”

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