06/24/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

The Presidential Election in Iran Matters

The question bothering Washington right now is whether the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new president of Iran will make a difference in the country's long running nuclear conflict with the west. Looking back on recent history one could be forgiven for concluding that this electoral outcome has little strategic significance. Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei has been the final arbiter on most foreign policy matters, especially the country's nuclear negotiations, while former presidents Ahmadinejad and Khatami have played only secondary roles. Both former presidents tried during their terms to steer the negotiation process towards a resolution, only to find their efforts stymied by the supreme leader.

But recent history notwithstanding, Washington would be mistaken to conclude that the recent election trounce by Rouhani is insignificant to the prospects for more fruitful negotiations with Iran. While the election result is unlikely to alter the power balance between the president and supreme leader on the nuclear issue, it has the potential to have an indirect, albeit profound, effect. The logic is as follows. In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election in Iran, during which the regime used draconian measures to first hijack the electoral machinery and then brutally suppress the uprisings that ensued, Khamenei conveniently exploited the nuclear confrontation with the west to distract the Iranian public. In effect he used the nuclear issue as an expedient for papering over the legitimacy problems the regime had created for itself in its handling of the election. While the economic sanctions imposed by the west were designed to undermine this plan, the regime adroitly played to the nationalist sentiments of the Iranian people, who seem to share the regime's view that nuclear enrichment is Iran's right, and focused the attention of Iran's mass-public on the external threat from the United States and its allies.

Rouhani's recent victory could change this difficult political dynamic that was the legacy of the 2009 election in Iran. By normalizing Iran's domestic political situation for the first time since 2009, this election could create conditions conducive to a change in the country's external posture. Because of the recent election's high voter turnout and the fact that it delivered more of a pragmatist than ideological president, there is the potential that some of the legitimacy lost in 2009 could be restored, and this in turn can give the regime the political head-room it may want or need to show greater flexibility on the nuclear issue and other foreign policy matters. A reinvigorated regime which has to worry less about its legitimacy at home may feel it has greater political flexibility in future negotiations with the P5+1. What Khamenei and others do with that headroom can't be predicted, but at least the election will give them more potential political flexibility than they have had.

But the results of the election can also influence Iran's foreign policy more directly. Rouhani is a consummate insider who has immense experience on the foreign policy front, both as part of Iran's supreme national security council and as the country's chief nuclear negotiator. He has the potential to play to Ayatollah Khamenei's more pragmatic instincts and to be more influential than his predecessors in high level internal debates on the nuclear issue. He also will probably have influence over who becomes Iran's next nuclear negotiator and its face to the west in future rounds of negotiations. Moreover, to the degree that the regime wants a way out of the nuclear imbroglio, Rouhani gives the supreme leader the ability to distance himself politically from any compromise.

The election of president Rouhani provides the greatest opportunity for movement on the nuclear issue that we have had in four years. Whether the political headroom referred to above will actually be used to show greater flexibility in future nuclear negotiations will be determined by the strategic calculus of the regime, something that is hard to predict. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge the importance of this moment and to miss the possibility of the opening of a real diplomatic track with Iran. It would also be a shame to be tone-deaf to the voices of the Iranian people, who through the election expressed loudly and clearly that they are hungry for change in the country's place in the world. With presidential elections behind us in both the United States and Iran, and with the regime in Tehran perhaps more secure of its domestic political legitimacy, now is the time to double-down on and not pull back from diplomacy on the nuclear issue.

Ross Harrison has been Professor in the Practice of International Affairs in the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) Program. His specialty is strategy, with a regional focus on the Middle East, and he just published a book "Strategic Thinking in 3D: a Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals" (Potomac Books, May 2013).