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.