Supporters of Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election. (Reuters/Fars News/)
Here’s a question for the White House: Do you think it’s a good idea to greet the new president of Iran, who might be willing to seek a long-lasting accord with the United States, with a head-on confrontation with Iran and Russia in Syria?
Hint: the answer is no.
Hassan Rouhani, who’ll take over as president of Iran in August, stunned the world with an outright, 50-percent-plus victory in the June 14 election. By all accounts, he’s a thoughtful, centrist cleric with a moderate outlook. As president, Rouhani will have a lot of power, but he will still have to operate within Iran’s very intricate political system—just as, say, President Obama has to do in dealing with Congress, the courts, his own fractious Democrats, the Pentagon and public opinion. In Rouhani’s case, he has to maneuver around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, Iran’s own conservative-dominated parliament, Iran’s judiciary (and the Guardian Council), the entrenched power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other centers of power.
Thus, Rouhani will need all the help he can get. Some of that help will have to come from the United States, including positive signals that Washington is ready to deal. But an American-backed war in Syria, aimed at forcible regime change against Iran’s chief regional ally, can only weaken Rouhani and stiffen the opposition of Iranian hardliners, including the IRGC. And, of course, the best way for the United States to aid Rouhani in his internal battles will be do sweeten the offer in the now-stalled nuclear negotiations, finally making it clear that Washington is ready to endorse Iran’s enrichment program under proper international safeguards.
In his first post-election news conference on Sunday, Rouhani couldn’t have been more explicit. “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.” And, in a televised debate just before the election, Rouhani explicitly addressed the nuclear issue. “We have to calculate our national interests. It’s nice for the centrifuges to run but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run.” That doesn’t mean that Rouhani is ready to give away the store on the nuclear issue. He won’t. Not only that, he can’t. But it does mean that—like his chief patron, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire businessman who’s been chafing under economic sanctions—he recognizes that Iran’s hard line on enrichment has led to the country’s political and economic isolation from the West. Unlike Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator and ultra hardliner—who, in his own, failed presidential campaign, called for Iran to live under a “resistance economy”—Rouhani and Rafsanjani realize that the nuclear program isn’t Iran’s number-one priority, especially when a workable deal can be so easily reached.