The End of Iraq? Or Not….

We again welcome a guest post from James Devine:

With ISIS’ shocking invasion of Mosul this week, there has been speculation that this turn of events will eventually lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state along ethno-religious lines, and perhaps even the establishment of a Salafi Islamic Emirate straddling what is now the border of Iraq and Syria. This may eventually come to pass, however it is still too early to say where this week’s events will lead. There is a complex web of political dynamics at work in Iraq and its environs, some tearing the state apart, some also holding it together.

Given the sudden nature of ISIS’ victory in Mosul and the equally stunning collapse of Iraqi national forces in the city, it’s easy to imagine the militia running the table in Iraq. Within 24 hours of seizing Mosul, ISIS grabbed Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home village and a Ba’thist strong hold, and is moving toward Baghdad with approximately 6,000 fighters. This is in addition to large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, which ISIS has controlled since the beginning of the year. The seizure of Mosul also netted ISIS approximately $425 million dollars, making it by some estimates the richest “terrorist” organization in the world. As ISIS’ successes mount, and its resource base expands, it will be able to attract more political followers. While ISIS has already been able to mobilize some disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis and anti-government tribes, it remains a relatively small organization. Mosul, for instance, was taken by approximately 800 fighters. However, if it can hold Mosul and make further gains around the state capital, ISIS’ following will likely grow and the Iraqi state would be fractured.

While this scenario is possible ISIS faces a number of substantial hurdles. First, and foremost, routing the Iraqi national army is one thing, fighting the Kurdish Peshmerga is something else altogether. The Peshmerga is well prepared and combat tested in Najaf (2004) against the Mahdi Army, and the second battle of Fallujah (2004) against Sunni insurgents. They are not likely to cut and run at the sight of 800 members of ISIS. They already appear to have taken control of Kirkuk and are likely preparing for Mosul. Moreover, President Hassan Rouhani has volunteered Iranian support and there are already reports of Iranian military units being dispatched to Iraq. It is not in Iran’s interest to have Iraq dissolve into chaos, and the IRGC along with Hezbollah are already fighting ISIS in Syria. Finally, ISIS continues to face threats to their home base in Syria. ISIS is not just fighting the Syrian government and its allies, but Syrian Kurdish groups and even other Salafi groups such as the al-Nusra Front. If ISIS stays in Iraq they will be fighting a war on two fronts against multiple enemies.

Having said this, while the military defeat of ISIS would end the immediate threat of Iraq splitting apart, it may trigger a slower but no less unstoppable breakdown of the state. Mosul and Kirkuk are on the Green Line that marks territories disputed by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous government in Erbil. Tensions between central government forces and Peshmerga forces have been high, particularly since the creation of the Dijla Operations Command in Kirkuk in 2012. Erbil saw the creation of this military command as a land grab, but did not use force to stop it. The decision not to confront Baghdad at the time received a great deal of criticism from within the Kurdish political community. It is therefore very unlikely that Erbil will give up the control it now has over Kirkuk, or the control of Mosul it would have if it expels ISIS in the future. These cities are important symbolically to Erbil, and important because they are the home to large Kurdish populations. They are also important because of oil. Indeed, it has been argued that controlling the energy resources around Kirkuk would give the KRG the income necessary for it to make the final break with Baghdad.

Even if Erbil did not decide the time was right to declare independence, the fact that the Iraqi state had to be saved by the Peshmerga and the IRGC may simply be too much. Iraq spent eight years at war with Iran in the 1980s and has been fighting the Kurds off and on since the country achieved independence. Now they are all that is left holding the Iraq state together? Certainly this would further alienate the country’s Sunni population. It would also signal the Shi’a population that the Malaki government is not up to the job. Although Malaki has earned his share of criticism, given the political divisions within Iraq, it is unclear that anyone else would be able to fill his shoes. Political deadlock and dissatisfaction could erode the state on their own while the Kurds simply wait out the process .

Despite all of this, there is reason to believe Iraq may continue to muddle along. While the state may be in disarray internally, none of its neighbors want to see it break up. Neither Turkey nor Iran wants to see an independent Kurdish state because of the potential impact on their Kurdish populations. Neither, of course, do the Syrians. The Syrians may not be able to do much about the situation but Iran and Turkey can. Both states have heavily infiltrated the Kurdish autonomous region and could create havoc if their interests were threatened. To the extent Iran helps fight ISIS, their influence over Iraqi internal politics will be significantly enhanced. Turkey also has leverage over the KRG because it is the main destination for Kurdish energy exports. The KRG has tried to build good relations with Turkey so that one day Ankara may not see and independent Kurdistan as a threat. However the relationship between the two has been strained by the fighting in Syria where Ankara has supported the opposition, includingISIS and other Salafi groups that have clashed with Kurds in the eastern part of the country.

The Saudis and the other Sunni states would be equally opposed to the breakup of Iraq. They see Iraq as a fellow member of the Sunni community. Not only would they be opposed to its dissolution on principle, if it were to break up they fear the immediate beneficiary would be Shi’a Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective in particular, things are already going far too much in Iran’s favor.

Given the opposition of Iraq’s neighbors, and the potential for instability, it is difficult to see the US supporting the dismemberment of Iraq either. There may be sympathy for Kurdish independence in Washington, but the US is focused on making a deal with Iran and managing its troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is even harder to see the US going along with idea if there was any possibility that it would allow an Al-Qaeda-like Salafi organization to set up its own state right in the middle of the Levant.

The point being made here is not that Iraq will or will not break up because of what has happened this week. The point is simply that there is no straight line between ISIS’ capture of Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi state. While this week’s events will leave an indelible mark on Iraqi politics, there are too many unknowns in the equation to make long term predictions. As we should have learned through the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 80s, and the current civil war in Syria, there is no way to predict what kind of alliances may form or how they may influence the outcome of events. Who knows, ISIS is a threat to the interests of the Americans, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Shi’a, the Kurds, and to moderate Iraqi Sunnis. They have even fallen out with Turkey. Perhaps this crisis will give them common cause to cooperate. Or, not…

 

Riyadh’s Diplomatic Overture Toward Tehran

While everyone’s attention was focused on the start of another round of nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the EU3+3, there have been signs of a diplomatic break in the bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, May 13th, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said that he would welcome a visit from his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The invitation has spurred speculation that Saudi Arabia was softening its stance on Iran looking for ways to deescalate Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region. Indeed, even US secretary of State John Kerry said he was delighted by the Saudis’ invitation. This turn of events begs two interrelated questions. First, why did the Saudis change their approach to dealing with Iran? And second, how much of a change are the Saudis willing to make?

The easy answer to the first question is that the Rouhani government has been able to charm the Saudis much in the same way it has charmed the rest of the international community. Shortly after his election Rouhani made it clear that he wanted better relations with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he already had a history of working with Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz. Iran’s diplomatic efforts toward Saudi Arabia were also guided by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had established his credentials with Riyadh in the 1990s when he orchestrated an earlier rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis were initially skeptical, Rouhani and his representatives were able to convince them after several months of back-channel diplomacy.

Although this explanation is plausible, and there is little doubt that Riyadh feels more comfortable with Rouhani than they did with the man he replaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia go deeper than personalities. The Saudis still do not trust the conservative elite that make up the backbone of the Iranian regime regardless of who holds the presidency. Moreover, the recent tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia did not begin to with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. They began with invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Muhammad Khatami was still president. From that point on, Iranian-Saudi relations gradually deteriorated under the weight of regional events such as the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, and the Arab Spring. Ahmadinejad actually visited Riyadh in 2007.

At present, the regional environment is still not conducive to good Iranian-Saudi relations. Tehran and Riyadh continue to compete in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. In part this competition is driven by both state’s desire for status and leadership, but it is also a defensive struggle that neither side can afford to lose. Iran needs to maintain a network of regional influence as part of its deterrent strategy against the west and Israel. The Saudis fear encirclement, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring. They see Tehran consolidating its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and potentially extending it through the Shi’a populations to the south along the Arabian Peninsula.

What has changed is that the Saudi’s efforts to keep Iran isolated are failing. The United States has made it very clear that it is committed to following through on the nuclear negotiation process regardless of its Israeli and Saudi protests. Since the negotiations began, Iran has been host to a number of European trade delegations. While this has been happening, several long-standing rifts within the GCC have suddenly re-emerged. Both Qatar and Oman have long chaffed at Saudi domination within the organization and preferred maintaining proper diplomatic relations with Iran. Recently, tensions between Doha and Riyadh erupted when Qatar refused to cut ties with Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The spat grew so intense that Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors. The Saudi even accused Doha of conspiring with the late Muammar Gaddafi to assassinate King Abdullah and threatened to block Qatar’s land and sea borders. Not surprisingly, Doha responded by improving relations with Tehran. Oman, for its part, recently conducted joint naval maneuvers with Iran and signed a $1bn gas pipeline agreement with Tehran. Finally, the situation in Syria appears to have been reversed. With military help from Hezbollah and the Iranian government, Bashar al-Assad is on the offensive. He may not be able to ‘win’ the civil war but the momentum has swung back in the regime’s direction. To make matters worse for Riyadh, Iran recently brokered a deal between the opposition in Homs and the Assad regime, allowing rebel forces to withdrawal. It would seem that even the Saudi’s allies in Syria feel the need to engage Iran.

Conversely, if the Saudis had been convinced that they could trust Iran, it is hard to explain why Riyadh was complaining about US policy at virtually the same time they were extending the invitation to Tehran. Indeed, the Saudi “invitation” came during a press conference covering the visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which was intended to deal with the growing rift between Riyadh and Washington. In a subsequent interview, Prince Saud al-Faisal complained about “super-powers” putting their own national interest ahead of the “sovereignty and independence of less powerful states.” While he did not name the United States outright, the target of his ire was obvious. It is also difficult to understand why Riyadh continued to press a union plan for the GCC. The Saudi proposal was mostly symbolic, but the apparent goal was to bolster the GCC as an anti-Iranian alliance.

Assuming the Saudis are reacting to a weakening of the anti-Iranian alliance instead of some new-found trust in the Iranian government, it is hard to be optimistic about the second question. Rather than fundamentally changing their policies toward Tehran, Riyadh is likely maneuvering for position. Opening talks with Iran now may yield some concessions. For example, there has been speculation that Iran promised to cooperate with the Saudis in solving the political stalemate in the Lebanese government. Talking also looks better than trying to force hardline policies like a GCC union, and failing. If nothing else, talking also allows Riyadh to bide its time. Although the Saudi’s position is on the wane now, it will likely improve in the not-too-distant future. First, the nuclear talks are hardly a sure thing, if they fail, the US will be back on side. Even if the talks succeed, no one expects them to yield the kind of “Grand Bargain” that would allow the US and Iran to reestablish their pre-revolutionary alliance. In short, the US will still need the Saudis one way or the other. Oman and Qatar will also come back, probably. Both states have had similar spats with Saudi Arabia in the past, but they have always managed to patch things up. There are important economic and military connections between them and the rest of the GCC. Moreover, if independence is what Oman and Qatar want, there is a limit to how far they can get from Saudi Arabia before they get too close to Iran. In fact, there are already reports that the crisis with Qatar has been defused.

The Saudis have played this game with Iran before. When Hashemi Rafsanjani took over the Iranian presidency in 1989 he too launched a charm offensive. The Saudis response was a ‘start-stop’ diplomatic strategy. They signaled a willingness to talk, pocketed whatever concessions the Iranians would make, such as opposing Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait, but gave little in return. Eventually the Saudis were ready for a real rapprochement, but it was not until 1997, eight years later.

Still Going Strong

At Foreign Affairs, I argue that many American commentators who write on Israel fail to account for processes of change within its domestic politics, leading to incomplete analyses on how Israel reacts to the Iran deal. A close examination of shifts within Israel’s security establishment yields a more complete picture:

Most depictions of how Israel sees the recent nuclear accord with Iran are consistently shallow. When explaining what the deal means for Israel, Western analysts and journalists tend to focus on the differences between close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as a “historic mistake,” and the Israeli security establishment (that is, serving and retired officials from the military and intelligence agencies), which is generally more tolerant of the deal. But it is misleading to think of Israeli policymaking just as a tug of war between those two camps, because disagreements between civilian and security leaders are normal, and because the public rhetoric on which such assumptions rest doesn’t allow for a consideration of wider trends and changes. Such a view leads to needlessly alarmist predictions about a coming split between Israel and the United States.

Follow the link for the full piece.

 

The Geneva Deal Hasn’t Weakened Netanyahu

If further proof was needed that the P5+1–Iran deal made in Geneva doesn’t much threaten Benjamin Netanyahu’s position in Israeli politics, the Israel Democracy Institute’s November Peace Index provides it.

Two questions stand out for what they can tell us about what Israelis think of their prime minister ’s responsibilities or failures for it. First, when asked to rate “the way in which Prime Minister Netanyahu has dealt so far with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program” on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being excellent): only 28.1% of Israeli Jews gave him a 5 or under. 4.9% don’t know/refused to answer. That leaves 67% at 6 or above (20.4% at 8, 17% at 10). That’s a pretty positive assessment overall.

Second, in the wake of Bibi’s harsh rhetoric against the Iran deal, and worries of another major American-Israeli dust-up, new-old Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman publicly disagreed with Bibi’s handling of the situation, contending that Jerusalem was asking too much of the U.S., which was forcing Washington to distance itself from Israel. The Peace Index asked if “excessive Israeli demands indeed are the main reason for America’s distancing itself from Israel of late?”

Of Israeli Jews, only 6.5% said “I’m sure they are”; 20.6% said “I think they are”; while 37.6% “think they aren’t” and 25.5% is “sure they aren’t.” In other words, a clear majority, closing on two-thirds, don’t believe Bibi is ruining the relationship with the United States.

These findings represent a longstanding trend: Israelis have long been comfortable with Bibi at the helm of the national security ship. In part this is because there hasn’t been a genuine challenger to him in several years, in part it’s because Israelis have more or less had some years of personal security from terrorist attacks, and in part it’s because Bibi has been very successful at balancing out firm public positions and tough rhetoric with an avoidance of armed hostilities. The exception that was the attacks on Hamas in November 2012 seems to prove the rule: Netanyahu was careful to use military force only up to a point because of the unforeseen military and political consequences.

The November poll is only a snapshot of a given moment in time, in the immediate aftermath of the deal, at a moment when Israelis are very likely feeling the need to huddle together in the face of an external threat. That could change as talks on a final deal proceed, if Iran or someone else undermines the Geneva deal, on the fallout of a military attack on Iran, or depending on what happens with peace talks with the Palestinians. But for now, Israelis are—as they have long been—generally satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance in foreign affairs.

Can Rouhani Deliver a Comprehensive Agreement?

This is a guest post by James Devine:

Ever since Hassan Rouhani was elected, the question everyone has asked about Iran’s moderate president is: Can he deliver? After Iran negotiated a deal with the P5+1 powers over the weekend, the answer appears to be yes. The deal has received the endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, and Iran’s negotiating team was greeted by cheering crowds when they returned to Tehran. So far, so good, right? The real question is can Barak Obama deliver, right? Perhaps, but it is still early going. The deal made in Geneva is only an interim one, there is still six months to a year of negotiating to be concluded, and the really difficult issues lay ahead. I raise the points below not because I think Rouhani cannot succeed, or that the negotiations are doomed to failure. I raise them because these are the issues on the Iranian side that are of concern me and need to be monitored.

First, one of the reasons the deal has been so popular is that Rouhani and his negotiators have been able put the right ‘spin’ on it. On Sunday Rouhani claimed that the deal recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and that Iran’s “enrichment activities will continue unchanged.” Similarly, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed the deal does not require Iran to change the “structure of its nuclear program”. In short, Iran gave up little, and the West realized that Iran could not be bullied. Not surprisingly, this narrative clashes with one being peddled in the West. US Secretary of State, John Kerry was quick to claim that Iran’s right to enrich uranium was not conceded, and the future scope of Iran’s nuclear program remains to be negotiated. Moreover a central part of the western narrative is that pressure works and that Washington is still able to apply pressure if it needs to.

Of course, both sides need to sell the interim deal to their respective public audiences, but they have to be careful in the way they do it. Neither side lives in a vacuum. The press in both countries is already reporting back on how the deal is being spun by the other side, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry is disputing the American interpretation of the deal. The two sides are likely trying to coordinate their messages, but it’s their opponents who set the tone of the discourse. For instance, the more the Republicans trash the deal, the more Obama has to defend it, even if it hurts Rouhani’s position in Tehran. This problem will likely get worse as we enter the next stage of negotiations.

Second, it is not clear how this deal or a final comprehensive settlement will impact the balance of factional power in Tehran. Khamenei has played the role of balancer in Iranian politics since taking over as leader. He makes sure competition does not get out of hand. None of the factions are allowed to get too strong, or too weak, and if a member of Iran’s political elite rises too high, Khamenei knocks them back down again. This is what happened to President Ahmadinejad, Khamenei’s erstwhile favorite, after the 2009 elections. Will Khamenei have to do the same to Rouhani?

In the short term this deal will give Rouhani a lot of political momentum, particularly if it translates into economic relief for the average Iranian. Although the interim deal only offers modest relief from sanctions, Iran’s currency has already jumped up a few percentage points relative to the American dollar. If a final deal is negotiated, and it ends all of the nuclear related sanctions, which is what the Iranian negotiators are demanding, he will be a hero. Given the divisions that exist between Iran’s elite, this could be destabilizing and the Leader may feel compelled to intervene.

Things have not progressed to that point yet, and perhaps they won’t. So far, Khamenei seems to be managing the situation by supporting Rouhani on foreign policy, but letting him fend for himself on domestic issues. This might continue to work. If it does, though, it might mean that the cost of a nuclear deal is stagnation on the human rights front.

Third, the last time Iran and the US were close to rapprochement was in the aftermath of 9/11. Just as the two sides were working together to put Hamid Karzai in power in Kabul, the Karine-A was intercepted carrying Iranian arms to the Palestinian Authority. The affair undermined Khatami’s credibility and gave hawkish neo-cons the excuse they needed. A few weeks later Iran was part of the axis-of-evil and the ‘new beginning’ in American-Iranian relations was still-born.

It is unlikely that there will be a repeat of this type of incident in the immediate future. Khamenei has warned Rouhani’s enemies not to interfere, and while Iran’s conservatives do not always do exactly what he tells them to, it is unusual for a member of Iran’s elite to publically defy him. In the longer term, though, the situation could change. If the final negotiations get bogged down to the point where Khamenei appears to lose faith, some conservative elements may feel they have licence to undermine the process.

Conversely, if things are going well, and Rouhani’s popularity increases to the point that his conservative enemies fear for their political survival, they may decide it is worth risking Khamenei’s wrath. This would not be without precedent. In the mid-1980s, as Ayatollah Ali Montazeri and Mir-Hossein Mousavi were losing political ground to Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, Montazeri’s son-in-law leaked details of the Iran-Contra Affair to the Lebanese press even though the deal had Ayatollah Khomeini’s blessing. In this case the ploy back-fired. The whistle-blower, Mehdi Hashemi, was executed. And, rather than embarrassing Rafsanjani and Khamenei, the incident accelerated Montazeri’s fall from grace. This seems like it would be a hard lesson to forget, but the precedent is there.

Fourth, the interim agreement lays out the final comprehensive solution in broad terms: nuclear related sanctions will removed, Iran will be allowed to maintain a nuclear program consistent with its obligations under the NPT, and there will be strict supervision. However, the details have been left vague. Hammering them out will not be easy. Moreover, if there is a deal, some parts of it will have to be approved by the Iranian Majlis (parliament), such as the IAEA’s additional protocols. Like Obama, Rouhani faces a hostile legislature which has no desire to hand him a political victory. Rouhani will need Khamenei’s continued support to clear this hurtle.

To complicate things further, it is also unclear what a comprehensive deal would mean for Iranian-American relations. The interim agreement avoids saying anything that would sound like a ‘grand bargain.’ However, as long as Tehran remains hostile to American interests and allies in the region, it will be hard for the US to give up the most potent sanctions in its arsenal. At the same time, while Khamenei may want an agreement on the nuclear issue, he is not anxious for a real rapprochement with the US. In many ways, normalizing relations with the US would mean the end of the revolution and the beginning of a period of political uncertainty. If Khamenei is going to continue supporting Rouhani and his team as they negotiate a comprehensive settlement, they will somehow have to find the sweet spot between these two positions, “frenemies,” as Akbar Ganji puts it. It will not be easy.

Rouhani, Sanctions, and the UN

A guest post by James Devine:

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has created quite a stir as he departs for the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. Word has leaked that he has exchanged letters with US President Obama. In an interview last week with NBC he stated bluntly that Iran would never build a nuclear weapon. He subsequently published an editorial in the Washington Post calling for dialogue and imploring the West to take advantage of the opportunity provided by his surprising election. He has also managed to secure the release of numerous political prisoners detained in the wake of the 2009 riots.  On September 18th it was prominent activist Nasrin Sotoudeh and eleven others, then yesterday 80 more were reportedly set free. Rouhani was expected by most observers to be a quiet and cautious, but he has moved quickly and created a buzz reminiscent of Muhammad Khatami’s first calls for a “dialogue of civilizations” in 1997.

Skeptics have argued that this is little more than tactical maneuvering. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” while others maintain that the regime in Iran is simply trying to wiggle out from under sanctions. According to them, Iran’s new flexibility is a sign that the tough approach is working and now is not the time to go ‘wobbly,’ as Margaret Thatcher would say if she were alive today.

This reading of Rouhani’s overtures, however, would be an oversimplification. Rouhani and the people around him have been making the same arguments since the 1990s, long before the current sanctions crunch. Rouhani is the protégé of the pragmatic former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and part of a loose coalition that includes Khatami and other reformers. He is a regime insider, but he represents a current within the elite that believes that Iran’s best interests will served by working with the West rather than looking east toward China and Russia. Their desire to improve relations with the West is not simply a tactic, it is a different perspective on Iran’s foreign relations—at least different relative to what we have witnessed for the last eight years.

Skeptics will be quick to counter that while this may be so, the only reason Rouhani is being allowed to pursue this vision is because the Iranian conservatives who hold the real power are feeling the economic pain. Once the pressure is off, they argue, the moderates will be reined back in and it will be business as usual. There is a great deal of truth to this argument. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has supported Rouhani’s initiatives at home and abroad so far, but he has probably not been converted to this way of thinking. Rouhani has political momentum after his upset electoral victory. If Khamenei were to oppose him now he would risk a popular backlash. What is more, he would take the blame for the continuation of sanctions.

Khamenei is being tactical, but if the President’s charm-offensive succeeds, the Leader’s stratagem may backfire and he may find himself trapped in a process he hadn’t intended to get so far. Rouhani has taken ‘ownership’ of the sanctions issue. He campaigned on easing sanctions during the election and has continued to emphasize the issue since taking office. He has also organized intellectuals and merchants in an international letter writing campaign. While the letters may not sway Washington or the Europeans, the campaign gives those who participate a stake in Rouhani’s policies and rallies support for his leadership. If he can claim any sort of success on the sanctions issue his political momentum will increase and it will be more difficult for Khamenei and the conservatives to oppose him in the future. Easing sanctions may reduce the outside pressure on the conservatives, but it will increase the pressure coming from the inside. Conversely, ignoring his overtures will doom him to the same fate as Muhammad Khatami, whose reform movement floundered when it failed to produce results and it supporters grew disillusioned.

Rouhani’s Cabinet

Guest post by James Devine:

Since Hassan Rouhani’s election, Iran watchers have been keenly anticipating his cabinet nominations. How this process plays out will likely yield valuable information about how Rouhani plans to deal with the polarized domestic political environment, what kinds of policies he hopes to purse, and how aggressive his conservative adversaries will be in their opposition.

On Iran’s political spectrum, his choices ranged from pragmatic conservative to moderate reformers. They all have plenty of experience, but none of them have had very high political profiles. The balance he is trying to strike should probably not be too surprising; he is trying to satisfy the Reformers and Greens who backed him after Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified from the elections, without waving any red flags in front of the conservative bulls in the Majlis (parliament) or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have been making threatening noises about “seditionists” in the new government.

No one really expected him to pick high-profile reformers like former president Muhammad Khatami. Nevertheless, there was a possibility that he might reach across the aisle, so to speak, and pick a few more moderate conservatives as a gesture of good faith. It is still likely, though, that former long-time Foreign Minister, and Khamenei favourite, Ali Akbar Velayati will play an important role in Rouhani’s administration. It has been speculated he would take over as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, a position that would also make him Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear file.

The choice of Ali Jannati for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is particularly interesting. The ministry plays an important role in controlling the media and freedom of speech, and therefore sets the parameters for allowable discourse within the Republic. Jannati is considered close to Rafsanjani but he is the son of prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Council of Guardians. This type of delicate balancing is typical of Iran’s complex factional political system. The younger Jannati may lean toward the reformist side but he is still tied to the regime by his relationship with his father, whose name Rouhani likely hopes will provide him with some political cover.

Rouhani’s choices are also suggestive in terms of foreign policy. Mohammad Javad Zarif, his nomination for Foreign Minister, is American-educated and has experience dealing with the United Nations and the US government. He has a reputation for favoring dialogue with the US, and is a logical choice for Rouhani, who has made easing sanctions a key foreign policy goal. Similarly, including Mahmoud Vaezi in the cabinet makes sense. Vaezi was expected by some to have Zarif’s job, but landed as the Minister of Information and Communication Technologies. Vaezi is one of the more conservative members of Rouhani’s political team, and mistrusts the US. Nevertheless, he is a former Deputy Foreign Minister dating back to the Rafsanjani era and has experience with both the Europeans and the Americans. Perhaps most interesting, he also has wealth of experience with the Saudis, having played an important role in the rapprochement that was achieved between the two states in the late 1990s. Rouhani has made improving ties with Saudi Arabia another one of his goals.

In the same vein, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh was likely chosen as Petroleum Minister to help smooth relations with Riyadh. Zangeneh held the same post earlier under Mohammad Khatami when he was brought in to undo the damage caused by his abrasive predecessor, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh. Zangenah helped negotiate a land-mark price-bandwidth deal with the Saudis in 2000. He will be asked to perform the same trick twice since the outgoing minister, Rustam Qassemi was also considered somewhat heavy-handed.

Finally, another name worth noting is Mahmood Sariolghalam. Sariolghalam did not receive a cabinet nomination but was tapped to become Rouhani’s Foreign Affairs Advisor. Sariolghalam is close to Rafsanjani. Moreover, his foreign policy outlook is decidedly Western-oriented. While Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners around him believed that Iran’s future lay in the east, through building up regional influence and courting China, Sariolghalam sees the US and Europe as Iran’s natural partner. Choosing such an advisor is a significant indicator of Rouhani’s inclinations.

What all of this means in practice is still anyone’s guess. Not only will it be difficult to make any substantive changes in Iranian policy, he still has to get his cabinet selections through the conservative dominated Majlis. Khamenei has reportedly seen the list and did not object. This may mean that Rouhani’s nominations will get a smooth ride through parliament, though that is hard to imagine. The conservatives will likely want to send Rouhani a message right away. Khamenei may therefore be leaving the dirty work to the deputies in the Majlis and the critics in the conservative press. That way, he can remain above the political fray. He can try to present himself as a neutral arbiter among the factions, and if the public reacts negatively to conservative opposition, he can avoid direct blame.

Even if he wants to give Rouhani some space, the rest of the conservatives may not be willing to go along with the program. As the last few years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency demonstrated, the conservatives themselves can be an unruly bunch. They may lash out at Rouhani regardless of Khamenei’s wishes. Indeed, the election exposed the depth of the divisions within conservative ranks. It may take them a while to gather themselves and formulate a coordinated plan for dealing with Rouhani. After all, it took the conservatives nearly two years to figure out how to deal with Khatami when he was elected.

One way or another, the next few weeks will be telling.