The ‘Rouhani Moment’ in Iran

Published on the IISS blog Politics and Strategy, August 14, 2013

Amid the relief, if not the fanfare, which has greeted Hassan Rouhani’s surprise election as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one hears a constant strain of argument that it won’t really make all that much difference. Those who take this view are at pains to constantly remind us that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, retains final say over the critical files, such as the nuclear one. We are also reminded that Rouhani must navigate a treacherous political landscape, filled with all manner of factions and interests which would like nothing more than to see him fail. Hopes that new approaches can be found to the vexing questions that confront us are, therefore, misplaced.

All of this is quite true. It would take a very superficial reading of Iranian politics and history to imagine that this presidential election will change things overnight.

Rouhani’s apparently more conciliatory tone could force the West to consider just what it is really willing to offer.

But it is also unfair to take the line that Rouhani does not matter; that things will evolve along a set course no matter what. This is the line taken by many who want a confrontation because they believe that regime change in Iran is the only acceptable way forward. As we saw in Iraq, once power centres come to the view that regime change is the only viable option, they refuse to see other possibilities and evidence that contradicts their chosen path. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears determined to resist efforts to put it into this policy box. But there are others who do believe this and they will move to frustrate attempts at compromise.

So what to look for? Well, in the first instance, tone matters. A better tone will not solve the problems that exist between Iran and the international community, but the bad tone of the past few years has made their resolution all but impossible. A resumption of discussions under a better atmosphere is likely and that is welcome. Beyond that, however, substance takes over. There is no reason to expect that the actual issues will be any easier to crack.

One thing that may have changed somewhat, and that few in the West are considering, is the fact that Rouhani’s apparently more conciliatory tone could force the West to consider just what it is really willing to offer. Holding a firm line was relatively easy when his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatened to destroy Israel and made other preposterous claims. It may not be so easy when the other side appears much more reasonable. This is the fear of those who advocate confrontation and regime change, and they want to portray Rouhani’s election as a clever Iranian tactic to lull the West into believing that Tehran has suddenly become more conciliatory.

So, as we ponder just what Rouhani can persuade the Iranian system to compromise on if a deal is to be achieved, it is also worth considering what the West is prepared and able to offer. Can sanctions be eased? Since Congress, and not President Obama, will have to make the key decisions here, how likely is it that they will be prepared to do so?

We may find out the answer to this and many other questions in the coming months, and it may be that it is not just the Iranians who will ultimately be seen as unyielding.

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