Is Rouhani the real deal?

Negotiating parties in the E3+3 process meet again this Wednesday in Geneva to hammer out an initial agreement on specific limits to Iran’s nuclear program in return for limited sanctions relief. The last time the parties met just over a week ago hopes were high, but an early deal was blocked by France.

The French apparently thought that more could be squeezed from the Iranians, particularly concerning the development of Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor. Reports last week also suggested that they may well have been operating under the influence of Israel and the Gulf Arab states, worried that the proposed deal signals a thawing of relations with Iran, and that this would be the first step in a general rolling back of sanctions without dealing fully with their other concerns around Iranian regional influence. Hopes are high that the French perception of a premature deal will have changed by this coming week, and that they will see this confidence-building deal as a modest step on both sides in preparation for future deals that will contain more substance.

There are tough issues surrounding trust that need to be surfaced and addressed head on. Fears have been expressed ever since the Iranian Presidential elections five months ago questioning whether Hassan Rouhani is ‘the real deal’, or whether his charm offensive, particularly at the United Nations General Assembly in September, is suspect. Is he the wolf in sheep’s clothing that Bibi says he is? A similar debate happened in Iran in November 2009 concerning the new U.S. President. Barack Obama was seen by many as positively dangerous, not least because he would be able to unite and mobilize the international community against Iran where his predecessor had not. As a result, opportunities over the following year, most notably in the potential fuel-swap deal on the table soon after the existence of the underground enrichment facilities at Fordow had been exposed, were squandered by Iran and later efforts rebuffed by the United States.

We have a mirror situation today. But in assessing the reality we need to look beyond the personality of the men concerned and look at the electorate behind them. Just as the American voters were persuaded by Obama’s slogans around “Hope” and “Change”, so too the Iranian people responded earlier this year to Rouhani’s message of change and reconciliation with the West on the nuclear file.

Not only is Rouhani the right person, in the right place at the right time for a deal to have a chance, but the Rouhani brand, bigger than the man, is likely to prove a weighty influence on the whole regime, and in particular the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Rouhani is indeed the conservative loyalist to the Islamic Republic that many of his western critics point to. Recent statements confirm his commitment to defending Iran’s red lines and its rights to sensitive nuclear technology. These all serve to reinforce his legitimacy in the corridors of power within Tehran. He remains one of them, and retains the trust of the Supreme Leader. This legitimacy is essential if he is to carry to Iranian state with him along the long and treacherous path towards a sustainable and substantive deal over the nuclear program.

But something remarkable happened earlier this year. Eight individuals (out of 680 candidates) were trusted by the Guardianship Council to protect and uphold the values and interests of the Islamic Republic and were allowed to stand. No-one expected any to win a majority in the first round, and Rouhani himself began the two week election campaign as fifth favorite in the opinion polls, at under 10%. It was when he made it his principal campaign message one of change that his popularity soared and he took a majority of the vote. All were surprised by the decisive victory, including Rouhani himself. The people had spoken. And even after the experience of the 2009 election and its aftermath the people play a significant role in establishing legitimacy. Whatever the cause, the Iranian people have put the leadership on notice to deliver a deal with the international community, and to improve the economic outlook for Iran.

Rouhani’s freedom to resist conservative forces and deliver a deal will progressively erode over the next 18 months. Already the forces of reaction have been highly critical. Major demonstrations last week in Tehran involved strident criticism of Rouhani, and Khamenei publicly rebuked them and called on Iranians to support their negotiators. The fortunes of the international community in controlling Iran’s nuclear programme and reaching a deal are intimately tied to the fortunes of the Rouhani brand. There is a general consensus that progress in developing the deals with Iran will take cautious step-by-step moves that avoid giving too much too quickly. Equally, we have to recognise that time is of the essence, and that to delay the initial steps is to risk future sclerosis and failure.

So what of the fears that proposed slow-downs or suspensions of nuclear-related activities in Iran are easily reversed, whereas the effort already invested in other countries to impose sanctions has taken a mountain of effort, and that decisions to lift them would be very difficult to reverse? It is not technically difficult to craft proposals that involve temporary wavers or suspensions of sanctions, with their future extensions dependent upon active decisions dependent upon Iran’s continued adherence to the terms of any agreement. In any case, the irreversibility of sanctions relief is much overplayed. With the level of distrust where it is right now, if Iran were to renege on any deal the political support throughout the United States and Europe for reintroducing and strengthening existing sanctions would be overwhelming, and the possibility for lifting them again even more challenging. In other words, the disincentives for Iran to break any deal are formidable.

While they should not have a veto over the process, it is important that the genuine concerns of Israel and the Gulf states are fully taken into account by the international community. The negotiating parties have a responsibility to keep these governments fully abreast of progress within the talks, to receive their opinion and any evidence to back it up, and to communicate fully within the international media their approach with Iran.

These are the opinions of the author.

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