The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's next president presents the United States and the Western world with a historic opportunity. In the same way Richard Nixon may have been the only American statesman of his era to have the credibility with the left and the right to negotiate with Communist China, Rouhani maybe just the right Iranian politician at this time in history.
While the candidates for Iran's presidency are vetted by an unelected clerical body, there appears little doubt that Rouhani's election was the overwhelming choice of the Iranian people. There were no foreign election monitors allowed in Iran, however, enough credible news sources have been reporting for weeks that Rouhani's campaign had been gaining momentum and has the support of the reform movement. His rallies were reminiscent of those of Mir Hossein Moussavi four years ago, with images of young men and women cheering him on as he spoke about granting them greater freedom and charting a new, less confrontational course in Iran's relations with the outside world.
Indeed Rouhani did what many pundits inside and outside Iran thought impossible, he revived the Green Movement (re-packaged it as "purple"), tapped into the reformist sentiment that many thought was disenchanted or unlikely to vote, all the while managing not threaten the sovereignty of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni or his protectors in the Revolutionary Guard. It is exactly this type of skillful political maneuvering and deft understanding of Iran's complex power structure that Rouhani will need to breakthrough Iran's impasse with the west on its disputed nuclear program. Iran's outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had so alienated Iran's clerical leadership as well as different power centers in Iran's government that his chosen successor and many close to him were labeled by influential clerics in Qom as a "deviant current" running through the government. Indeed when Ahmadinejad was elected to the presidency he had little clout or experiences in government, save for his short time as mayor of Tehran.
By contrast Hassan Rouhani is a heavyweight in Iranian politics. A cleric who has served in various positions in Iran's government since the revolution; he was a national security adviser in both administrations of Hashemi Rafshanjani and Mohammad Khatami. He gained great notoriety as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator when its nuclear program was uncovered and was instrumental in suspending its enrichment before Ahmadinejad came to power and reversed course. Realizing that he had philosophical differences with the firebrand president, he left his post yet maintained his ties to Iran's leadership by serving as the Supreme Leader's representative in Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Rouhani has the political capital and skill to navigate Iran's unpredictable body politic
The Obama administration should be careful not to de-legitimize Rouhani's election and alienate his incoming administration as Republicans in Congress are falling all over themselves to do. They should view Rouhani as someone with a clear mandate from the Iranian people who also has the trust of the Iranian political elite and as such should put forward a serious proposal to resolve the puzzle that has become Iran's nuclear program. The contours for a deal have been clear for some time, in return for lifting draconian economic sanctions-the harshest put on any nation in history-Iran would cease enriching uranium beyond low levels, ship out its existing stockpile of highly enriched uranium and agree to a very intrusive inspections regime by the IAEA. In essence the international community would be asking Iran to live up to its word that it does not intend to pursue a nuclear weapon and only intends to have a civilian nuclear program. This of course is easier said than done but diplomacy between countries that have essentially been enemies for thirty years is never easy. However, with the election of Rouhani there exists the possibility of rapprochement; the West now has someone with credibility before it to get a deal done. President Obama should listen to what former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who spent years negotiating with Rouhani, said just before his election became official: "What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rouhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West; On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief."