President Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Policy

Another important guest post from James Devine, in which he considers the foreign policy implications of the Iranian presidential election:

Few people predicted a Rouhani victory in yesterday’s presidential elections, even after he received the support of former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. On the whole, Iran watchers were resigned to the election of a loyal conservative. But now that’s he’s won the election, what does Hassan Rouhani’s victory mean for Iranian foreign policy? Probably not enough of a change to suit Washington, or Tel Aviv, or Ottawa; however, we may see some subtle changes that are nevertheless important.

On the nuclear issue, Rouhani will not likely alter that much in substance. The roots of Iran’s nuclear program are deep. While Tehran does not appear to have made the final decision to build a bomb, it has been putting the building blocks in place for more than 20 years. Its neighborhood is no less dangerous than it has been in the past, and the program has strong institutional support in the security services and Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, the peaceful development of nuclear energy has become a popular symbol of Iranian national independence. More, Rouhani is himself is tied to the program. He was chair of the Supreme National Security Council in its early days and Iran’s main negotiator on the issue for a period while Khatami was in power.

It is also unlikely that Rouhani will be able to improve Iran’s relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Although relations with the Saudis and the GCC improved while his allies Khatami and Rafsanjani were in power, the region is today too polarized for him to follow in their footsteps. Iran will continue to back the Asad regime in Syria and Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Iraq is on the rise. Even without these problems, Shi’a unrest in the Gulf will ensure that tension between Iran and the Sunni monarchs remains high. It is possible that having Rouhani in office may facilitate relations with Egypt to a degree, but this would still likely be limited by popular opinion within Egypt. To those who wish to isolate Iran, this is good news, but these tensions feed the violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and complicate diplomatic efforts on these and other conflicts.

If there is any room for substantive improvement, it might be Afghanistan. Iran’s interests are less diametrically opposed to western interests in the country. Iran has history of conflict with the Taliban, and it cooperated with the US in 2001 when the Taliban were overthrown, and again when Hamid Karzai was installed in power. The main issue dividing them, rather, has been mistrust.

Having said that, Iran will likely continue to hedge its bets by backing every group in Afghanistan willing to accept its support, and Iranian security forces in Afghanistan will be hard to rein in, even if Tehran wants to. What is more, the Iranian government received a Taliban delegation only a week ago, suggesting it is moving even further way from the western position.

Where there likely will be a change is in the tone of Iranian foreign policy. The substance of Iranian foreign policy may be dictated by regional dynamics and the constraints of domestic politics, but the way that policy is carried out may change. Rouhani campaigned on his ability to avoid needless conflict, so it is unlikely that he will be calling for Israel’s destruction or denying the Holocaust. Just as importantly, we will likely see different faces in the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Each Iranian president has brought his own people into this ministry.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power, many professional diplomats were replaced by fellow ideological travelers and cronies. Few of them had much experience. Rouhani will probably lean heavily on former members of the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. It would not even be surprising to see former Foreign Minister and conservative presidential candidate, Ali-Akbar Velayati, return to his old post. He and Rouhani have worked together in the past, and Velayati is trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative elite. Like Rouhani, Velayati was also critical of Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements. This type of change may seem trivial given the events unfolding in the region, but it is not. There is a difference between managing conflict carefully and pouring fuel on the fire.

We may also see is a little more coherence in Iranian foreign policy. Since the revolution, Iran has had a difficult time speaking with one voice. This will likely continue under Rouhani. Conservative opponents will remain in control of the Majlis, and Khamenei’s leadership style is to let his underlings compete amongst themselves and only intervene when necessary. However, if Velayati is on board the administration would bridge the divide to a degree and it would be harder for conservative opponents to criticize policy if it was associated with someone so close to Khamenei.

If Rouhani’s election will make any difference, it will also depend in part on how the west responds. If the west wants to take advantage of these subtle differences, there may be some modest gains to be had. It is also worth noting that foreign policy success strengthened Khatami’s domestic position early in his presidency. Working with Rouhani may, then, be one way for the west to strengthen the moderate current inside Iranian politics. However, if the west decides that modest gains are not enough, and pushes for fundamental policy change, it does not matter who the president is: only Khamenei can make those types of decisions.