Rouhani Leads Iran’s New Soft Power
Asia Times Online -(FRIDAY, JUNE 21, 2013)
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
In his first press conference after his impressive victory in Iran’s 11th presidential contest, Hassan Rouhani provided a glimpse of coming attractions, emphasizing his economic priorities, detente with the West, enhanced relations with Iran’s neighbors, new nuclear diplomacy, respect for guilds and syndicates in Iran, an inclusive non-factional government of “moderation and consensus”, and political tolerance.
“I said I have a key [to solving Iran's problems] not a sickle” to mow down the rivals, Rouhani explained, to clarify his approach toward the political opposition. He reiterated that his campaign promise of “prudence and hope” covered both domestic and foreign relations, the latter captured under the slogan of “constructive interaction” with the international community, which has given a clean bill of health to the Islamic Republic, despite earlier criticisms of its restrictive shortcomings.
With over 72% of the (50 million or so) eligible voters defying the outside expectations of a low turn-out on June 14, Rouhani’s landslide victory, garnering more than 18 million votes, has given him a strong mandate that will enable him to initiate new foreign and domestic policies, particularly if he puts together a sound cabinet inclusive of reformist politicians who backed him, a “centrist” clergy with a long track record in the military, legislative, and foreign affairs. Rouhani will likely enjoy a lengthy “political honeymoon” at home, but this in turn depends on whether or not he will deliver some of the promises on the foreign front; above all, the promise to “reduce the sanctions” which are choking the Iranian economy and are bound to get more aggravated as new US sanctions targeting Iran’s currency and auto industry kick in on July 1.
Promising “greater transparency” in Iran’s nuclear behavior as well as “confidence-building” steps that would ensure the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear program, Rouhani, who led the Iran nuclear negotiation team during 2003-2005, has simultaneously defended Iran’s controversial uranium enrichment program and dismissed the idea of suspending that program, as requested in several UN Security Council resolutions on Iran.
The question, then, is whether or not the US and its Western allies will revise tough Iran policy that is tantamount to outright economic warfare and, if not, can they maintain a “unity of purpose” and keep manipulating world public opinion against Iran?
For sure, Rouhani’s election has complicated the Western (and Israeli) agenda on Iran – and we have already witnessed the emergence of certain policy adjustments, in Washington, London and Paris. Thus for example, the White House has reversed its earlier criticism of the Iranian elections by accepting the results and offering direct engagement with the Rouhani government, which can happen as early as this summer at the upcoming conference on Syria.
In a clear sign of a changing Western approach toward Iran, France – which had adamantly opposed Iran’s participation at the Syria conference – is now singing an entirely different tune, with President Francoise Hollande welcoming Rouhani’s attendance. In fact, the thick glacier of Iran-West diplomatic alienation may begin melting with France, which has the biggest potential among the European powers to give a breathing space to Rouhani. The prospect for an improved Iran-France relations is partly due to Rouhani’s explicit references to his “near deal” with the former French President Jacques Chirac in 2005, whereby Iran’s enrichment rights would be respected in exchange for Iran’s cap on low enrichment and “objective guarantees” of its peaceful nuclear intentions. In his book on national interests and nuclear diplomacy, Rouhani blames the US for torpedoing the nuclear deals with European powers, whom he portrays as “weak” and unable to stand up to the US.
But, with the new “Rouhani charm offensive” now directed partly toward European public opinion, the other question is if the European Union can stand up to US, which is in the driver’s seat of Iran policy and is clearly wedded to the one-dimensional coercive diplomacy, irrespective of post-election White House maneuvers. Actions speak louder than words and President Barack Obama, who has signed nine executive orders on sanctions on Iran, even sanctioning exports of car and motorcycle parts to Iran while pretending sympathy with the suffering Iranians, has a unique chance to break some ice with Iran’s new president, beginning with a letter of congratulations to him, as called for by Rouhani’s former nuclear deputy, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, in an oped article in the New York Times on June 18.
Rouhani’s think tank, the Center For Strategic Research, employs high quality of foreign policy experts who will assist Rouhani; first and foremost is Mahmoud Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister who has extensive background and experience in conflict management in Central Asia-Caucasus. Vaezi in particular can contribute to a Rouhani-led foreign policy reorientation, whereby Iran would play a more active role than ever in the past in “sustainable regional stability” as well as conflict resolution.
In his various writings, Vaezi has pushed for normalizing relations with Europe, closer ties to BRICS countries (ie, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), enhancing Iran’s regional cooperation, enhancing Iran’s cooperation with the international organizations, and making better use of “soft power diplomacy”. The leaders of all the BRICS nations have welcomed Rouhani’s victory. Prospects are bright for improved relations between Iran and these countries, which Tehran looks to as a source of “counterweight” to Western hegemony.
A freeze on new US sanctions?
A clear parameter of US goodwill toward Iran would certainly be a White House decision to put on hold the implementation of the latest round of US unilateral sanctions on Iran, not to mention the even more “robust” sanctions plotted by the United States Congress. Not only that, the US could conceivably lift some of the sanctions on Iran, such as on the sale of spare parts for the Iranian civil airlines, even in the absence of a nuclear deal, as called for by a number of US experts on Iran, including Harvard professor Mathew Bunn. Bunn’s advise to the White House to adopt some of the lessons of the Cold War is an apt one, irrespective of the vast differences between today’s Iran and the then-Soviet “evil empire,” in light of the shared US-Iran interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, and vis-a-vis Wahhabi terrorism. (For this author’s interview with Bunn, see Let’s talk about bombs, Asia Times Online, March 4, 2008).
For sure, Rouhani and his foreign policy team are vesting hope in the White House’s ability to demonstrate “political will” and reconsider its coerciveness in favor of a more nuanced and “realistic” approach that recognizes the reality of Iran’s irreversible nuclear advances. Certainly, Iran’s “cooperation” on Syria at the upcoming conference will be a key factor. The road to US-Iran detente may yet go through Damascus, just as the opposite possibility of escalated tensions between Tehran and Washington may come about as a result of a failed summit and the ‘logic of US intervention” in Syria, which has already been put into motion by Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels.
In other words, Tehran and Washington are now poised to “lock horns” in the Syrian theater of conflict, especially if the US proceeds with the “no-fly” option, just as they can significantly reduce the tensions between them if their common search for a “political solution” in Syria, Iran’s and Russia’s strategic ally, yields a positive result in the near future. Much depends on Israel, which has seen its prescripts for “crippling sanctions” on Iran faithfully implemented by the Obama administration, and whose leaders much prefer the outside world dwell on the conflict in Syria rather than the plight of Palestinians.
In a word, the Syrian crisis is a crisis of opportunity for Israel to put on the backburner the issue of reviving the “Middle East peace process” favored by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has so far come completely empty-handed in his push for this noble purpose. As a result, the prospects for a successful summit on Syria are rather dim and as stated above this is bound to have ripple effects on the overall context of US-Iran relations.
For now, however, there is a great deal of post-election optimism that moderate Rouhani’s victory will have positive implications with respect to the nuclear and regional crises in the Middle East. The ball is in US court to take advantage of the changed political landscape in Iran and the new window of opportunity for a leap forward toward US-Iran detente. One hopes that unlike in the past, ie, the era of previous moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, the US will not miss an historic, yet time-sensitive, opportunity.