The election of Hassan Rouhani to be the next President of Iran presents a major potential opportunity for progress on human rights in Iran and nuclear diplomacy with the U.S. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator and political insider, promised to "pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace," and pledged to create a "non-securitized environment" in which political prisoners detained in 2009 would be released. With the backing of moderates and reformists, Rouhani cruised to a surprise first-round victory over his divided conservative opponents. Actions will speak louder than words, but the fact that the Iranian people have given a mandate to Rouhani to attempt to resolve the nuclear impasse and improve human rights creates an opening that the United States can't afford to miss or dismiss.
As recently as a week ago, few predicted that such an outcome could be possible. The experience of 2009, which saw the brutal repression of Green Movement protesters disputing a rigged election, weighed heavy on the minds of Iranian voters and analysts alike. Iranians, however, set aside their doubts that their vote might not matter, eager to utilize one of the few outlets for change within Iran despite its limitations. Until the results were announced, most outside analysts already declared the election a rubber stamp for the Supreme Leader's preferred candidate, current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. But as it turned out, conservative forces within Iran couldn't get away with cheating twice in a row. Even the Supreme Leader, often portrayed as all-powerful, couldn't pull the strings to manipulate this election without putting at risk the remaining façade of the regime's legitimacy.
To be clear, Rouhani is a political insider and is far from perfect. And already, hawks opposed to a peaceful resolution of the standoff with Iran have begun to highlight negative elements of his past in order to say he's just like Ahmadinejad and other hardliners, hoping that the United States will continue on a path of unrelenting pressure that could lead to war. Sanctions hawks like Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), who has been working on legislation that would prohibit the U.S. from lifting sanctions as an incentive in exchange for nuclear concessions from Tehran, has called for the U.S. to ignore the election and continue ratcheting up maximum pressure. And the House is considering voting on a new round of sanctions as early as next week. Such a move would not only undermine moderate forces in Iran, but would be a slap in the face to the 18 million Iranians who went to the ballot box and, against all odds, voted for change.
A careful parsing of Rouhani's record can't dispute that he has taken a relatively pragmatic approach to nuclear diplomacy in the past, and that he campaigned for a more constructive approach to the West and against the "extremism" that has typified the Ahmadinejad years in Iran. Rouhani has called the standoff between the U.S. and Iran a "old wound that needs to be healed" and promised that, on the nuclear program, Iran is "ready to show more transparency and make it clear for the whole world that measures of the Islamic Republic of Iran are fully in the international frames."
As nuclear negotiator in 2003, Rouhani agreed to confidence-building measures with the European 3 (France, Germany and Great Britain), including to voluntarily suspend enrichment activities and to implement the IAEA's Additional Protocol, enhancing transparency by granting the IAEA enhanced powers of inspection. This exposed Rouhani, as well as then-President Mohammad Khatami, to blistering attacks from conservatives who accused the reformist government of appeasement and even treason. However, their flexibility failed to produce forthcoming concessions from the European 3, leaving Rouhani and Khatami out to dry. In an effort to save face, Rouhani emphasized that Iran continued to develop its nuclear program during the suspension. However, Iran's conservatives argued that only resistance could force the West to concede to Iran's right to enrich, which they claim is granted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 and quickly restarted enrichment, which led to European offers of incentives and the U.S. joining the talks, and later scrapped the Additional Protocol.
Many will point out that the Supreme Leader still holds all the cards on the nuclear file. It is true that Khamenei has the final say on all major policy decisions, but it is important to note that the source of most major diplomatic initiatives in recent years have come from the President's office, including the suspension of enrichment in 2003, the decision to restart it in 2005, and the Turkey-Brazil fuel swap deal in 2010. The Supreme Leader has been skeptical of diplomatic initiatives but has often allowed them. His dubious but positive response to Foreign Minister Salehi's recent letter calling for direct diplomatic talks with the United States, reported by Reuters last week, was further evidence of this dynamic.
However, if Rouhani is to have any chance of changing course on nuclear diplomacy, and to achieve a non-securitized environment in which political prisoners are released, the United States needs to give him the political space to do so. Persisting in amplifying economic pressure before Rouhani even gets into office or has an opportunity to change course risks empowering the hardliners in Iran who are fundamentally opposed to a nuclear deal and eager to keep prisoners locked up.
This could be the opportunity the Obama administration has been waiting for. There have been too many instances of missed opportunities on both sides of the equation. And every time an opportunity is missed, the remaining options get worse. With Iran's nuclear capabilities steadily progressing towards a potential "breakout" capability, tensions in the region intensifying, and U.S. commitments to military action on the line, missing the potential opportunity for a diplomatic offramp could leave the parties with ever more dire options. Both Obama and Rouhani campaigned on a strategy of diplomatic negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue. To achieve such a deal, Rouhani will have to deliver on his promises by changing the tone and substance of Iran's interactions with the rest of the world. And the administration should pause on pressure and be willing to put significant sanctions relief on the table, including sanctions on Iran's oil and financial sectors, in return for concessions that ensure Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon.
Despite the odds, the Iranian people made their voices heard in Iran. Let's make sure they don't fall on deaf ears in the United States.