Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President Elect, will assume his duties at the beginning of August. He stated during his campaign and in the press conference he held shortly after being elected that improving the Iranian economy would be his top priority, and this would include working to lift the sanctions, which have dramatically hurt Iran’s oil revenues and disconnected it from the global banking system.
The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West are currently at a low, following the failure of the second round of talks in Kazakhstan. Rouhani, who in served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator in 2003-2004, said that he plans on turning a new page, but will not “give up Iran’s legitimate nuclear rights.” It may be that the first clue of Rouhani’s new-old direction can be found in the Rouhani campaign’s tweet, which quoted a statement by Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, according to which Iran is ready to suspend its 20% uranium enrichment. Recall that in 2003, Rouhani agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, but at the same time, Iran continued to develop the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, which is a critical component of the Iranian nuclear program.
While serving as Iran’s chief negotiator, Rouhani (with the approval of the Supreme Leader) adopted a flexible negotiating strategy with the West. It agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, and evidently slowed the pace of development of the military components of its nuclear program. The strategy was derived, as Rouhani himself stressed during his election campaign, from Iran’s difficult geostrategic position in 2009, at the height of the war on terror led by the US, which Iran believed threatened to reach it as well.
Today, Iran’s assessment of the scope and force of the threat the US (and Israel) pose to its national security and nuclear facilities is different. Iran believes (likely incorrectly) that the United States is no longer a threat and, in fact, is weak and in the process of withdrawing from the Middle East. This assessment, which has been widely held in Iran for several years and is what led it to a more defiant stand against the US and the West and even led (under Ahmadinejad’s government and negotiator Jalili) to the nuclear dossier being handed over to the UN Security Council and the imposition of heavy sanctions on Iran, the harshest of which (to date) have been the sanctions on the oil industry and banking system.
The nature of the negotiations under the Rouhani government (with the blessing of the Supreme Leader) will be based on Iran’s assessment of US stature and determination in the region. Rouhani stated in his book (2011), National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, that “negotiating with the Americans is like driving a Mercedes, while negotiating with Western countries is like driving an Iranian-made Peykan.” It now appears that given the hesitant US policy in light of the Arab Spring (or the “Islamic Awakening,” as it is known in Iran) in general and specifically the Syrian crisis, Iran believes that the power and determination of the US has waned, and that this may impact the nature of the talks and Iran’s insistence on concrete concessions.
The Iranians are certainly reading the US press and the growing criticism spanning the entire political spectrum against the policy being led (?) by the President in matters related to the Syrian crisis, which is currently a “test case” for the development of a new regional order and the establishment of future regional and international alliances to shape the face of the Middle East. On the right, Charles Krauthammer writes that US policy reflects American withdrawal from more than the region and that Iran and the Shiite camp are filling the void; in the center – David Ignatius writes that Obama doesn’t want Assad to collapse too soon, as he is afraid that that extreme jihadist elements will be the ones to fill the void and is trying to build up the moderate camp (Idriss). However, the extremists are more ideologically and militarily determined and committed, which is why more concrete and daring measures are needed. On the liberal left – Fareed Zakaria writes that the actions taken by the Obama administration to date are insufficient given the determination of the enemy, unless the administration takes a Machiavellian approach designed to encourage another civil war with the involvement of Hezbollah (an argument Iran raises from time to time regarding US policy).
In any event, the decision-making processes in Iran are influenced by the changes in the region and how secure Iran feels with them. As far as Iran is concerned, the victory – a Hezbollah victory – in al-Qusair is yet another link in the chain of regional victories in recent years – the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Second Lebanon War (2006), lack of a decisive win in Gaza (Iranian assistance to Hamas in the form of missiles), the survival of Bashar Assad, the Arab Spring and collapse of bitter enemies (Mubarak) and more. The bottom line is that Iran senses that US power is on the wane and that it is losing its hold on the region (a sense that is also developing among the leaders of the Gulf states and particularly the emirates – Bahrain – that are feeling Iran’s growing shadow over them). As far as Iran is concerned, this is not the time for concessions. There are, of course, also several issues facing the “resistance front” (Iran views Syria as the “golden link” in this front), and it is not reasonable to assume that now, against the back drop of weaker American influence, Iran will be willing to make real concessions and give the ever-weaker US a feather in its cap. To the contrary, Iran will view a weakening US as an achievement and honor for the country that managed to stand firm against the US throughout the Revolution. Gestures to an opponent that is losing strength could be perceived as weakness.
As in the past, during the negotiations Rouhani will try to keep what Iran truly thinks to himself on the clerical home court. In the West, in line with tradition, the negotiations will provide what it wants and craves to hear moderation, willingness to compromise in diplomatic talks. In short, more lip service, Ketman (taqiyah in Arabic). Iran is looking at the greater regional picture, at the history-making changes and the possibility it thinks it may have for historical vengeance of the Shiites against the Sunnis and become the main power in the region – the nuclear weapons may provide the defensive shield for the survival of the Islamic regime. Its continued subversive acts are viewed as essential, and its efforts to achieve this will continue as a derivative of Iran’s perception of the changes in the region.
In the end, the West – mainly the US – will need to restore or create from scratch the geostrategic conditions that existed in 2003 if it wants to force Iran to give up is military nuclear program. The situation today is far worse, both in terms of the advances that have been made in the Iranian nuclear program and its ability to produce a sufficient amount of fissionable material for a bomb in short time frames, and in terms of the status of the US and the West. When Iran looks around it, it sees the Sunni world under pressure, without the backing of a superpower, desperately trying to wage battles in the spheres of Iranian influence (Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon), Russia that is unequivocally beside Syria and American hesitation.
If they really want to change course, they will need to convince Rouhani and through him Supreme Leader Kahmenei that they and the Islamic regime are facing a tangible existential threat. For now, it appears that Rouhani will receive a few more months of grace, while Iran continues to use its sophisticated centrifuges to accelerate its enrichment abilities and, as a result, the time to produce fissionable material for a bomb – and assemble it at a time of its choice.