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.

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.