My Person of the Year: The Muslim World |

Will Hassan Rohani Restore Tehran's Relations With the West?

Rohani's relatively moderate style may presage a positive change in the Islamic Republic's relations with the world. But he needs an ally in the West.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

One voice was missing from the international choir that went out of its way, albeit not out of its military bases, to protest the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21. Iranian President Hassan Rohani made do, rather, with expressing regret that “chemical components” had hurt innocent civilians, and demanded that the world do everything to prevent use of such weapons. While Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was quick to state that if there was use of chemical weapons, then it was the “militants” − as the Syrian rebels are termed − who used them, the president himself was careful not to take a stand.

Rohani, who took office August 4, also refrained from demanding that Western countries not strike in Syria. Nor did he issue combative declarations that would compel Tehran to come to Syria’s defense, and he didn’t threaten to “set the Middle East on fire” or to attack the attackers.

Rohani’s Iran has not disavowed its commitment to either Syria or to President Bashar Assad, but it has adopted − since its new leader’s earliest days in office − the policy Rohani established during his election campaign: to “speak softly,” use diplomacy, unimpassioned speech, “civilized” wording, and to take care not to push any unnecessary buttons that enrage the West, such as Holocaust denial. These are the work tools being used by Rohani, who is no stranger to Western culture nor to international policy.

If there is anyone who gives hope that the coming year in Iran will be different from the previous eight, and who will be able to advance negotiations on the nuclear issue significantly, distance Tehran from the threat of being attacked and allay international anxiety about Iran’s military-nuclear capabilities − it is Hassan Rohani. He still has to prove himself, of course, in the eyes of both Iran’s citizens and of the international community, which in the meantime perceives him as an iron fist in a velvet glove.

However, when the new leader makes a commitment to his citizens that during the first 100 days of his term they will see the first signs of economic recovery, and when he reiterates his willingness to engage in direct dialogue with the United States and pushes for “more active negotiations with the 5‏+1” ‏(the countries conducting the talks with Iran over its nuclear program‏) − he makes clear to those testing him that he is aware of the connection between these important realms. At the very least, he has followed in the footsteps of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who boastfully promised his countrymen that Iran would always stand firm against Western pressure.

Rohani was elected by a little more than 50 percent of the electorate, almost like Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. He started off as a marginal candidate, but he began to gain increasing popularity after Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, ruled out the candidacy of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The reformists were left without a candidate and were forced to vote for Rohani, a former protege of both Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president who failed to make good on his promises.

Rohani is not a clear-cut reformist like opposition figures Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi: His political and religious career actually placed him in the proximity of the conservatives, those affiliated with Khomeini and Khamenei, and also in the security agencies as Khamenei’s representative. On the scale customarily used in the West, which divides the top officials in Tehran’s regime between conservatives and reformists, Rohani falls somewhere in the middle.

But that is not the estimation that will determine his success. Rohani has an impressive resume that shows that there is barely an institution or senior committee in Iran that he has not been involved in. For 16 years, he was secretary general of the Supreme National Security Council, and he led the nuclear dialogue during Khatami’s presidency. His diplomatic skills − which embroiled the United States in the Irangate affair in the 1980s, when Rohani was among those who negotiated with U.S. envoy Robert McFarlane − are the same skills that led to the success in talks with the Americans in 2003 when Tehran decided to put its nuclear program on hold. At the time, Khatami’s rivals charged that Rohani “sold out Iran’s national interest.” Rohani countered that he secured the agreement to buy time for achieving Iranian interests.

Rohani received Khamenei’s blessing after he was elected president, even though Khamenei had candidates who were more closely affiliated to him. The two have a good relationship, and, according to several Iranian commentators, Khamenei has promised Rohani his full backing. The question of course is whether Khamenei is actually ready now not only to shift the rhetoric in relation to the West and to adopt the diplomacy of dialogue, but also to let Rohani find a way out of the nuclear crisis that has trapped Iran in the severe economic crisis threatening the regime’s stability.

The final decision in these matters rests of course with Khamenei, but it is generally the kind of decision that depends upon various consultations, an understanding of domestic checks and balances, consideration of the seats of power in the country, and an educated assessment of the threats. Herein, too, resides the power of Rohani, who is involved in Iranian politics down to his bones.

Successful appointments

The new president is currently bolstering his base of support in the government, and to that end he is consulting with parliamentary chairman Ali Larijani − to the point where Rohani informally
presented his list of suggested ministers to Larijani to obtain his support in principle. And indeed, only three ministers from that list were rejected by parliament, whereas the candidates for the top posts of defense, interior and foreign affairs were easily approved.

In contrast to the harsh criticism and obstacles the parliament placed before Ahmadinejad, it looks like Rohani can look forward to, at least for the near future, a honeymoon with that conservative body. His decision to appoint Ali Akbar Salehi, who was foreign minister under Ahmadinejad, as head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on top of his post as his deputy has also been met with satisfaction.

Salehi is indeed a conservative, but also a professional diplomat who is familiar with the West ‏(he has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT‏) and who has maintained good relations with world leaders. Along with him, Rohani has appointed as the new foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, another alumnus of American universities, who served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and knows the American administration well.

The appointment of these two senior officials, with the agreement of Khamenei and Larijani, still does not
constitute proof of the seriousness of Iran’s intentions, but any negotiator knows that the nature of those engaged in discussion and the style of the discussion bears tremendous importance for its outcome.

The Revolutionary Guard also has a great stake in Rohani’s success, after the sanctions imposed on Iran put a substantial dent in their income from civilian projects they have been involved in, and from various other sectors of the economy that they control − from their private fuel depots to the national airport, which they run.

The Revolutionary Guard’s interest is also the interest of the millions of voters who gave their votes to Rohani who are expecting a significant shift in terms of quality of life, stabilization of the economy, reduction of inflation that has soared to 36 percent, and creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs for the millions of unemployed Iranians, most of them young university graduates. To that end, two weeks ago, Rohani appointed a special committee that will gather, analyze and suggest solutions for the ills of the Iranian economy. The committee was required to submit its findings within 15 days, and Rohani undertook to act in the spirit of its conclusions.

Nevertheless, one would be hard-pressed to see on the streets of Tehran young people rejoicing about the appointment of such a committee or Rohani’s commitments. They have seen plans and heard promises, but they continue to collect the financial aid the government hands out every month to those of little means.

But the anxious wait for the turnaround Rohani is expected to generate on the nuclear issue, which in turn is to lead the way toward economic prosperity, will burst like a bubble unless he finds a partner in the West, generally, and in the U.S., specifically. The American and Iranian willingness for direct dialogue cannot be a substitute for coming up with concrete suggestions, a coordinated timetable, and meticulous execution of whatever is agreed upon. Furthermore, such agreements − should they be achieved − cannot be unilateral. Without concessions from the West, no Iranian president will be able to sell those agreements to the conservative leadership. This is going to be Rohani’s year, but no less so than Obama’s year.

Hassad Rohani. Illustration by Amos Biderman.

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