The Diplomat Sheikh: Rowhani and Iran’s Chance at Nuclear Reform

By Jamsheed K. Choksy

The main issue dividing the Islamic Republic from the West has been Tehran’s quest for nuclear power. But now, Iranians have elected a new president, Hassan Rowhani, a moderate Shiite cleric who headed its nuclear negotiating team from October 2003 to August 2005. In keeping with the people’s wish, Rowhani pledges “transparency” to produce “constructive interaction” for settling the nuclear dispute. Supporting this trend, Iranian headlines print calls by leaders of the P5+1, European Union, and United Nations for direct diplomacy with Rowhani’s government to resolve the problem.

Ending the international standoff will not be easy—if Rowhani even attempts to do so. During his time as chief negotiator, Iran suspended uranium enrichment to avoid possible sanctions from the UN Security Council—though it continued research in other aspects of nuclear technology. Confidence-building measures his team deployed were abrogated in subsequent years by fundamentalists loyal to xenophobic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Relations with the West deteriorated and isolation of Iranians increased. Those same hardliners will continue to throw wrenches in constructive talks.

Many senior Iranian leaders like Khamenei share an anti-Western, fundamentalist worldview. Consequently, they believe the nuclear issue is a ruse to force the Islamic Republic back under hegemony, and Khamenei has concluded, “Negotiation with the United States does not solve any problems, because they have not fulfilled any of their promises in the past 60 years.”

Due to this flawed perception, those political elites fail to grasp the world’s main concern: Iran’s acquiring atom bombs while being led by a hostile regime. So a decade of Western attempts to convince Iranian leaders to limit their nuclear program has proved futile—and the Iranian public have suffered harsh consequences.

But the nation’s voters have delivered a potential game changer, even if it’s a gradual one. Iranians have created an opportunity to amicably resolve differences, because President Rowhani says he will replace the anti-Western stance with deeds aimed at rebuilding trust. At his first press conference, Rowhani noted “Threat is not effective … There are old wounds that should be healed prudently, and we certainly will not be seeking tension.”

Nevertheless, Rowhani himself is very much part of the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran for the past 33 years. So it remains to be seen whether he will resume talks merely to alleviate sanctions and buy more time for his country to continue its nuclear pursuits, or if he truly understands the value of renouncing nuclear weapons. The global community is unlikely to tolerate the former.

While negotiations have not worked so far, Iranian leaders’ are astute politicians seeking to prevent any military confrontation that would be devastating to their authority. They have inched forward on nuclear technology rather than raced toward weaponization. Indeed, back in February 2010, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, told Japanese politicians that “Japan has nuclear technology but does not possess any nuclear weapons, and Iran will follow the same path in its nuclear program.”

Rowhani acknowledges that possessing nuclear technology “is good for our international reputation” and declares “the time for suspending enrichment has passed,” but, like other Iranian leaders, he assures that “as for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction.” He also realizes the Islamic Republic has not faced “negotiations with this degree of gravity” before and calls for approaching “the issue with more reason and less emotion” so that Iranians do not have to continue “paying a hefty price.”

So far, sanctions and isolation have cost Iran over $100 billion in revenue and foreign investments. Profits from export of crude oil have fallen by 50 percent. As a result, the annual budget deficit has reached 45 percent, the currency has lost 50 percent of its value, inflation hovers around 40 percent, and unemployment stands at 11 percent though unofficial estimates place it at least 22 percent.

Khamenei thwarted previous efforts at resolving the nuclear crisis—not just when Rowhani served as chief negotiator under reformist President Mohammad Khatami but also more recently during the tenure of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But, Rowhani has been elected by 52.5 percent of voters, trouncing his hardline isolationist rivals who emphasized Khamenei’s policy of sticking to nuclear expansion. He wields a solid mandate from the people to transform Iran’s approach to atoms.

Accordingly, President Rowhani could compel Khamenei to hold true to the latter’s claim that “pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons is a grave sin.” The supreme leader may feel it is in his own political best interest to accept accommodation with the IAEA and P5+1 and alleviate the mounting public resentment toward him due to Iran’s deteriorating domestic situation.

Rowhani also has tactfully moved quickly to reestablish good relations between the executive and legislative branches of government—reversing the actions of his predecessor Ahmadinejad. Support of the latter institution’s elected parliamentarians is vital for success on nuclear issues. Nor is Rowhani linked to the anti-semitism of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei that has alienated Iran’s government from many world leaders.

Rowhani says he will utilize “change and prudence” to reverse Iran’s “foreign humiliation.” But Rowhani cannot appear to be capitulating to international demands—which Iranians’ national pride will not permit. So Rowhani emphasizes that “nations should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognize the rights of the Islamic Republic [in order to] receive an appropriate response.” Essentially, Iranians say they must voluntarily choose to renounce nuclear weapons and permit atomic facility inspections as steps along the path to economic recovery. Iran could then pursue its right to peaceful nuclear energy and enjoy the prestige of atomic capability, while the IAEA would verify no nuclear-based military activities occur.

Likewise, Iran has a long history of global involvement instead of seclusion. Its leaders, like its citizens, crave participation in regional and world affairs. Including international partnerships as part of a settlement package would greatly enhance the likelihood of negotiations succeeding.

Broader goals must remain constant and acknowledged endpoints as well. For Iranians, this means not just an end to sanctions and isolation generated by the West, but also a security guarantee against foreign attack and externally sponsored regime change. For Americans, Europeans, and Israelis, this requires from Tehran not only full transparency attesting to only peaceful nuclear energy, but also cessation of verbal threats and discontinuation of support for terrorism.

Negotiations are unlikely to produce a swift grand bargain between Iran, IAEA, and P5+1, but measured incremental and reciprocal actions are possible. Momentum has now shifted in favor of a political solution, because the majority of Iranians have made their desire for peaceful engagement crystal clear. The Iranian people defied the ayatollahs and elected a reform-oriented politician known as the “diplomat sheikh.”



Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian studies at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.

[Photo Courtesy of  Mojtaba Salimi]

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