A more open Iran?

2013-08-13 09:51
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. (File, AFP)

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. (File, AFP) (AFP)

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Chicago - Last weekend saw Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, take office, having successfully run on a moderate platform. Admittedly, it isn’t hard to look moderate when compared to his infamous predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making it slightly tricky to establish just how the world should be viewing Rouhani.

Talking to News24, Dr Nabeel Khoury, Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and expert on the Middle East and national security described him thus, “He's really more of a centrist than a reformer. He is sympathetic to the reformers, and he is more realistic than the hardliners when dealing with reformers. At the end of the day he is not exactly rebelling against the establishment; he is part of the establishment. In short, yes, it's a relative thing: He is reform-minded when compared to his predecessor, but not a reformer in the absolute sense.

The varied spread of voters that elected Rouhani will ensure he plays a delicate balancing act throughout his time in the presidency, particularly as the real power lies with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, whose whims the president needs to take into account too. The Supreme Leader is literally that: Constitutionally the highest-ranking person in Iran, in charge of the legislature, executive, judiciary and military. There is nothing that happens in Iranian politics that isn’t sanctioned by the Supreme Leader.

Rouhani has legitimate conservative bona fides, but ran as a centrist, attracting those dissatisfied with the Ahmadinejad regime – which, if you remember, resulted in a mass of stiff international sanctions – naturally including reformers, but not alienating conservatives. Reformers lined up behind Rouhani when their candidate, Mohammed Reza Aref, removed himself from the race so that his supporters could back one candidate. The move worked as Rouhani won, securing just under 51% of the vote (thereby avoiding a run-off).  But he has a very loosely-joined coalition of support, meaning his efforts to deal with the rest of the world will be constrained by a plethora of domestic concerns. Barry Pavel, a vice president of the Atlantic Council and director of the Brent Sowcroft Centre on International Security, spelled out Rouhani’s difficulties to News24: “He does not have a free hand. It’s not just the Supreme Leader he has to report to. It’s the various factions and power groups in the Iranian establishment to deal with. He’s negotiating with his people, with his government, interest groups etc, while he’d be negotiating with the international community.”


Rouhani’s tenure will be tricky in terms of voter appeasement because of the aforementioned myriad constituencies that put him in government, meaning each and every decision he makes runs the risk of upsetting too many people. What shows that Rouhani is invested in fixing international relations is his somewhat risky pick of Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister: Although this falls consistently with Rouhani’s cabinet picks being selected on prior experience (Zarif served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations), Zarif worked under reformist former president Mohammad Khatami and his appointment probably required a bit of arm-twisting of the Supreme Leader by Rouhani.

No one should be in any doubt that sanctions on the country’s oil industry have pressured the Iranians, although it is usually those at the bottom of the food pyramid who feel them the worst, which is a large reason ultra-conservatives were able to cast ballots for Rouhani, in spite of more ideologically congruent candidates being in the race. Pavel explained that although promising to deal with the sanctions was enough to attract voters, unity in an end solution and unity in how to get there are two very different things, “The sanctions on this regime are among the most restrictive in history, and include a lot of other countries, not just the US... including hardline sanctions from the Europeans as well. This is a difficult balance: Rouhani can’t look like he is giving away the store – he has his own constituencies.”

The true test will come when Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament votes on whether it has confidence in the cabinet – expected later this week. However, as Khoury explains, the cabinet has seemingly been approved by the Supreme Leader, and the chamber is unlikely to go against his wishes. “There is no doubt that there was some leeway in allowing Rouhani to run in the first place because he could have been disqualified, or the results of the election could have been tweaked to make him lose.  In allowing him to run and to win indicates an intention of some sort on the part of the Supreme Leader."

“My hunch is the cabinet will probably be approved - Khamen'ie, having given his blessing on Rouhani as president, is not likely to block him at the very first step that he takes. He's probably going to give him some leeway to pick his own cabinet and to give him a chance to make some decisions.”

“Khamen'ie likely wants someone with a softer approach, to be able to gain some time, to be able to get the West release some of the restrictions that they've had on Iran. But I think at the end of the day Iran's foreign policy is not likely to change that much.”

Rouhani himself was a negotiator with western countries from 2003 until 2005 and was prepared to use diplomacy liberally, according to Pavel, “The west has dealt with him in the past. He is known for one of the key Iranian concessions over the long history of the international community’s negotiations with Iran, he secured that concession [voluntarily suspending uranium enrichment] apparently with his own initiative.”

Although western countries have reason to be optimistic when it comes to dialogue between the countries, in initial principle there will still be clashes. Iran claims its nuclear programme – supported by Rouhani – is for energy while western nations are convinced the country is trying to cultivate nuclear weaponry.


Khoury isn’t optimistic about the countries finding common ground. “The core issues on the nuclear programme are quite clear: Iran wants to right to enrich [uranium] beyond the 20%, and the West does not trust it to do so - they want to do the enrichment outside Iran and send them the finished product. This is unacceptable to Khamene'ie. That issue is hard to compromise on: You either accept it or you don't. The other issue is inspection, which means letting the UN team go wherever it wants, including security or military institutions ... and Iran will say 'these are our military facilities. We will not, for obvious reasons, allow you inside', and then it gets stuck there... that's a really hard thing for Iran to swallow. How they might compromise on that I'm really not sure.”

“The only way out is for Iran to accept that enrichment take place outside Iran. That would solve things. But I don't think they're ready to go there.”

Whether western nations take up Iran’s offer of new diplomacy remains to be seen. While public statements from US president Barack Obama seem to show interest, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted for more sanctions on Iran two weeks ago, and the Senate, the upper chamber, is expected to follow suit after its summer recess – hardly the welcome a new Iranian president would want. In fact, some of the few dissenting voters sent a letter to the leadership of both parties in the House explicitly calling the new sanctions “counter-productive and irresponsible” to pass such a measure before Iran’s new president was inaugurated.

“I think [new] sanctions on Iran are bad timing," says Khoury, "Given that Iran has just elected this guy, and given that at least on the surface of it, it looks like a more positive approach to the international community, he should be given a chance. To squeeze him at this point will probably play into the hands of hardliners and backfire.”

Pavel agrees with the dissenters. “This is still a very delicate and complex dance, and it’s unclear how new sanctions would affect it. My advice [to Congress] would be ‘go really slow’, it’s already a stringent [set of sanctions], and let’s see if we can come to some sort of arrangement more quickly. Rouhani said at his first press conference, ‘We are ready to engage in serious and substantial talks without wasting time’, and we should take him up on that offer. Let’s get to the table.”

“I think this is the best opportunity in a long time, and I’m not sure when we would get another one.”

“Let’s not be naïve. Let’s not be overly optimistic. But let’s give this a serious chance, and let’s see what we can get out of it.”

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    hassan rouhani  |  mahmoud ahmadinejad  |  us  |  iran  |  iran nuclear programme  |  sanctions

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