Backed by Supreme Leader, Rohani Takes Iran on New Strategic Path

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“I act in accordance with the general policy directives of the supreme leader,” said Iranian President Hassan Rohani in a statement to journalists immediately after returning from New York. He meant that responsibility for Iranian policy is shared, and no one could blame him for acting on his own; anyone who spoke out against him would be speaking out against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well.

These “general policy directives” are intentionally ambiguous, and rest on the backs of similarly vague phrases like “heroic flexibility,” “preserving Iran’s interests” and “the national prestige of the state.” Notice that none of these include terms like “uranium enrichment” — as though Iran’s nuclear program were not the elephant in the room, just an unimportant insect.

Rohani has benefited from the support of Khamenei, who sent his senior adviser,  Ali Akbar Velayati (who ran against Rohani in the presidential election and lost), to welcome him at the airport. He also brings optimism to the Iranian people. Iran’s stock exchange reacted positively to Friday’s 15-minute phone conversation between Rohani and United States President Barack Obama, and the rial strengthened against the dollar.

For now, at least, Rohani’s political rivals are reining themselves in. In the conservative press, Rohani gets good marks for “manipulating” the U.S. The conversation with Obama was interpreted as a U.S. effort to secure a political victory, with Rohani clarifying at every opportunity that the conversation was an American initiative, not an Iranian one. But the historic gesture, for which there has not been a precedent in the past 34 years, has already done its part.

Reports about Iran focused on the conversation as well as the U.S. gift to Iran: a 2,700-year-old silver chalice with the body of a lion and the head of a bird of prey. It had been in New York since 2003, when an art dealer smuggled it in from Iran, and had been languishing in U.S. customs warehouses until its return last week. It is worth noting that the ancient Persian artifact represents not the Islamic Republic but Iran’s pre-Islamic past.

The meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as Rohani’s speech at the United Nations, his interviews on American television — one of which (in contrast with his predecessor’s denial of the Holocaust) included the comment that “the crime the Nazis created toward the Jews is reprehensible” — and ultimately, his conversation with Obama.

All of these constitute a significant about-face not just in the content of Iran’s rhetoric, but also in the strategy Iran has been using until now. Beforehand, Iran would condition any dialogue with the U.S. on the removal of sanctions, or at least a change in U.S. policy toward Iran. This time, it appears that Tehran has decided to make a down payment on a relationship with Washington.

The change in rhetoric, or the “heroic flexibility,” a term Khamenei coined without describing what he meant, is meant to place Iran and the U.S. on the same level. The U.S. is demanding that Iran be judged by its actions rather than its words; Iran sees the change in diplomatic behavior as an action, and now the U.S. will be judged by its own actions.

In 2003 Iran, with the approval of Khamenei, decided to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for reconciliation with the U.S. and guarantees against a strike on Iran. At that point, then-U.S. President George W. Bush said the agreement wasn’t serious since Iran couldn’t implement it. Rohani, who at the time was the secretary general of Iran’s National Security Council, is now dusting off this agreement, except that this time the U.S. president is ready to listen, take initiative and give diplomacy a chance.

The platform that will serve as a basis for the negotiations set to begin shortly is radically different from the bed of nails that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered the Western powers, though the test is similar. Rohani, who has announced that his visit to the U.S. “met all expectations,” said Obama was supportive of Iran’s right to nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

Therefore, at the center of the talks that will take place between Iran and the 5+1 powers will be the question of transparency and the manner in which uranium-enrichment sites will be monitored. The International Atomic Energy Agency has a long list of demands, including visits of inspectors to the Parchin military complex, which the Iranian government has so far prevented inspectors from seeing. Parchin, not Natanz or Fordo, will be the first test. Later on, both sides will have to discuss the quantities of uranium that Iran would be allowed to enrich and the acceptable level of enrichment. Freezing enrichment, the most volatile political obstacle that Rohani will face, will apparently be discussed only in the final stage of negotiations.

Talks have already revved up, and now each side will have to sell the idea that its own achievements are greater, and its concessions less significant, than those of the other. That’s what diplomacy is all about.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani waving to supporters upon his arrival from the U.S. near the Mehrabad airport in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013. Credit: AP

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