07/01/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Iran's Newly Elected President a Double-Edged Sword for Washington

Citizens of Iran erupted in celebration two weeks ago when moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran's new president. Indicative of what might be a new era for this Middle Eastern country, Rouhani is a herald of a more progressive, compromising approach on issues affecting the West, such as Iran's controversial nuclear program. It is not quite as cut and dry as this, however. His potential political influence positions Rouhani either to become an opportunity to change the United States' long-strained relationship with Iran or to become a threat that will further distance the West from Iran. The U.S. should not underestimate the role they will play in that outcome.

Though the final decision about many hot-button political issues rests with Iran's supreme leader, this doesn't mean that the new president won't impact policy decisions. President-elect Rouhani, in particular, has wisely positioned himself as a relatable ally to Iran's conservative supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and other key political players, including those in parliament, members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Supreme National Security Council, the Expediency Council, and politicians in high-ranking state institutions.

Additionally, security concerns and public opinion can also tip the balance of power regarding the policy agenda from the supreme leader and into a sitting president's favor. Given that Rouhani has aligned himself with so many different political factions, it seems that most politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, are at least cautiously accepting of his moderate, centrist politics. Validated in the eyes of conservatives, reformists, and the military alike, Rouhani may have struck a perfect balance that will enable him to use his myriad personal connections, lobbying power, and adept negotiation skills to benefit the whole of Iran in a meaningful, long-term way.

Rouhani has long been nurturing those far-reaching alliances, and at this early stage in the game, it appears that's definitely paid off. He made his way back to Iran as a loyal follower of Islamic Republic of Iran founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rouhani decisively replaced many military officers in his role as a political commissioner after his return. In 1989, he was appointed as the secretary of the Supreme National Council, a position he held for the next 16 years, namely as the country's chief nuclear negotiator under two Iranian presidents: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Since 1991 he has held an appointment as a member of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Expediency Council, and is also a member of the Assembly of Experts. Eventually, he had a hand in the decision to end the Iran-Iraq War as a member of the Supreme Defense Council.

The president-elect's diverse background would lead some strategists to believe that Rouhani's decision-making power is already more significant than the president he's set to replace. Rouhani's former role as a regime insider puts him in the unique position of bridging long-standing divides: Between Iranian citizens and their political leaders, within the Iranian government itself, and, perhaps most interestingly, between Iran and the West.

Does this mean celebrations in the United States are also in order? The answer to that question might be up to Washington. Despite his current vision of a more peaceful relationship between Iran and other world powers, it's speculated that Rouhani will only be favorable to these types of negotiations if Western leaders are ready to make some meaningful concessions. Rouhani has a real chance to compromise with the West during his time in office, but if he isn't incentivized to do so, he has the power to make negotiations more difficult instead.

The powers that be in Iran have already seen how quickly the tides can turn against them. Former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, pushed for foreign policy that strengthened Iran's relationship with the West, particularly by offering assistance to bring down the post-9/11 Taliban; however, the country was then quickly identified by then-U.S. President George W. Bush as part of the "axis of evil." Naturally, this soured the supreme leader and other Iranian reformists' views of the West, meaning that if he is to succeed in reaching out, Rouhani will need to be even more delicate than his predecessors, and so too will President Obama.

The U.S. should consider keeping an open mind about the possibility of lifting sanctions and perhaps prepare to bring other enticing offers to the discussions as well. Without this approach, regardless of Rouhani's interests in reconciliation, an unconvinced Iranian supreme leader may continue to stand in the way. There is a great opportunity here for Rouhani to lead Iran into a time of positive political change and a better relationship with the West. Domestically, he'll have a tall order to fill in helping his country recover from a post-war economy, though his biggest challenges may very well lay abroad, where the world is watching and waiting to see if Rouhani is ready to step up and act on his platform promises. Still, he can't do it alone, and the United States would benefit from recognizing the role they play in strengthening their tenuous relationship with Iran.