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Can Iran’s Rouhani deliver in new nuclear talks?

by Said Amir Arjomand

As world powers meet in Geneva to begin nuclear talks with Iran, the world awaits the followup to the phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama after Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly last month.

That brief conversation — the first between the two countries’ presidents since 1979 — recalls the last attempt to revive bilateral diplomacy, undertaken 12 years ago by Iran’s then-President Mohammad Khatami. In both episodes, a missing handshake symbolized the countries’ persistent rift.

Back then, Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi “went shopping,” rather than attend a cultural event at the Asia Society and risk crossing paths — and shaking hands — with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

This time, despite Iran’s avoidance of a presidential handshake at the U.N., Rouhani delivered a major address at the Asia Society asserting that his government would pursue policies of “moderation and common sense” and would be willing to work with the West on resolving questions about its nuclear program.

Moreover, handshakes were exchanged by the two countries’ foreign ministers, when John Kerry and Javad Zarif, joined by the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, held a formal meeting to organize the upcoming nuclear negotiations in Geneva. Kerry and Zarif shook hands again when the two met separately.

So what changed? Back then, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had forbidden Khatami to speak with the Americans. Rouhani, by contrast, proceeded with Khamenei’s blessing.

Khamenei, concerned with repairing the damage caused by his acceptance of the fraudulent re-election in 2009 of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was willing to accept the victory in June of Rouhani, a conservative reformist whom he trusted. He must have calculated that the new president would have to ameliorate the consequences of Ahmadinejad’s foreign-policy freelancing and economic mismanagement, which has had as much to do with the collapse of the Iranian economy as U.S.-led international sanctions.

There had been earlier attempts to improve relations with the Americans. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became Iran’s president after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, sought such an outcome. In 1995, he sent clear signals of a desire to restore diplomatic relations. President Bill Clinton’s administration ignored the overtures and allowed the U.S. Congress to take the initiative. Congress responded by unanimously adopting the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996.

Rafsanjani was in a much stronger position vis-a-vis Khamenei, who had just been selected to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader, than any of Iran’s subsequent presidents. His trouble was with powerful opponents in Iran’s security apparatus, who sabotaged his pragmatic foreign-policy initiatives by staging terrorist attacks in France, Germany and Argentina.

Khatami’s proposal for a “dialogue among civilizations” in 2000 was an attempt to open a crack in what he described as the wall of mistrust that continued to separate Iran and the U.S. It was only in the last year of his second term that Clinton made a serious effort to respond to Khatami. But Khatami lacked the support of Khamenei, who firmly opposed his reforms.

The aggressive rhetoric of Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, who called Iran part of an “axis of evil” prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, made Khamenei apprehensive and he endorsed an initiative for a dialogue with the Americans in 2003.

The Bush administration, in thrall to the idea of regime change, ignored this initiative and rejected the “Big Deal” on nuclear energy negotiated with the EU-3 in Paris in November 2004 by Rouhani, who was then Khamenei’s representative and Chairman of Iran’s National Security Council. The formal rejection of the Iran-EU nuclear agreement in February 2005 was an unintended gift to Iran’s hardliners, led by Ahmadinejad.

The return of hardliners after the ascendancy of moderates is a little-understood but fairly typical feature of 20th-century revolutions. Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 was a throwback to the populism of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and his cult of revolutionary martyrs. It went hand in hand with an aggressive foreign policy and a determined nuclear strategy of uranium enrichment that repeatedly frustrated EU negotiators and forced world leaders to fall into line behind America’s crippling sanctions regime.

There can be no doubt that before coming to the U.S., Iran’s new president studied Obama’s letter to Khamenei, who promised “heroic flexibility” in negotiations. With Khamenei’s support, Rouhani will be able to rein in recalcitrant forces in Iran’s power structure in a way that his pragmatic predecessors, Rafsanjani and Khatami, could not.

More than any Iranian president since 1979, Rouhani can deliver his part of the bargain — if and when a bargain is struck.

Said Amir Arjomand, the founder of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies, is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. © 2013 Project Syndicate