“The history of Iran-U.S. relations is littered with missed opportunities. The Obama administration should make sure that the victory of a moderate president in Iran doesn’t become another one.” – Ali Vaez, Senior Iran Analyst for the International Crisis Group
On Friday June 14, 2013, the people of The Islamic Republic of Iran voted in their eleventh presidential election. Surprising nearly every pundit and prognosticator, Iranians elected Hassan Rowhani as their seventh President by an overwhelming majority in the first round of balloting. Come August 3rd, the notorious President- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will no longer hold power- and Rowhani will be inaugurated as President. Although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the supreme leader and the ultimate seat of power, the President holds an important position in terms of how Iranian policy is conducted. Rowhani’s election offers a potential opportunity for the United States in its long-troubled relationship with Iran, including the potential for progress on a sustainable solution to Iranian’s nuclear program.
While few would argue that Hassan Rowhani is a radical reformist, he gained strong support from reformists throughout Iran while maintaining his pragmatic, conservative background. He is seemingly a man trusted by all factions in Iran, from reformists to conservatives. In order to win the 2013 Presidential Election, by all accounts Rowhani ran a smart campaign, gaining the support of other candidates and consolidating the vote from both the reformist and centrist camps of former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Further, he ran a smart campaign calling for confronting past challenges, national reconciliation, and pledging to seek a peaceful future.
Like all major Iranian politicians, President-elect Rowhani is publicly committed to a peaceful nuclear program “as a manifestation of technological achievement and national sovereignty” (Give Rowhani a Chance). Yet there is reason to be hopeful about potential progress on reslving the ongoing conflict between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program.
The difficult economy created by international sanctions appears to have driven middle-class Iranians to express their dissatisfaction with the Ayatollah Khamenei by coming out in strong support for Rowhani. During his campaign, Rowhani specifically presented a message of centrism and pragmatism calling for Iran to improve its relationship with the West. His track record shows that he is willing to compromise, having suspended uranium enrichment in 2003 while he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Throughout his campaign, Rowhani pledged that his main goal will be to relieve Iran of external pressure – primarily related to the nuclear program – which has weakened its economy immensely.
Here in Washington, experts are noting the potential significance of Rowhani’s victory. Suzanne Maloney, of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa that “Rowhani has been elected to run a national unity government and his priority will be very much on the economy which effectively means getting a nuclear deal…He will concentrate on [a nuclear deal] because it’s the only way he will solve the economic issues in the country.” Rowhani reportedly believes that improvement in mutual trust between Iran and the world will allow everyone to take advantage of this opportunity for progress. He claims that “negotiations with P5+1 [United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany] will hopefully be more dynamic… [The] nuclear issue will be solved only through talks, not sanctions and threats” (Factsheet: Who is Iran’s Next President Hassan Rouhani).
The outcome of the Iranian Presidential election presents America with the best potential opportunity to attempt to solve the nuclear crisis through diplomacy in quite some time. America’s policy should be balanced and cautious while smart and forward leaning at the same time, offering tangible rewards for strategic concessions. In the words of Dr. Maloney, “we must continue to approach negotiations with total seriousness. We must be prepared to give meaningful sanctions relief for meaningful concessions.” The United States simply cannot afford to lose this opportunity by imposing more sanctions on Iran before President-Elect Rowhani even has a chance to take office. While the US and our allies must maintain a healthy level of skepticism on the potential for success, we must be open to the possibility for a diplomatic solution. The risk of missing this opportunity is that America will take one step closer to yet another war in the Middle East while Iran remains no further away from a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, the potential reward is a meaningful and sustainable diplomatic solution, the only true way to prevent an Iranian bomb. The choice could not be any more clear. The United States must explore this potential opportunity created by the election of Hassan Rowhani as the next President of Iran.