This happened once before.
A decade and a half ago, there was a moderate, reformist president in Tehran, Mohammad Khatami, who famously supported a “dialogue of civilizations” and who once even shook hands with Israel’s president. In 2001, following the US invasion of Afghanistan, Khatami’s Iran played a critical role in helping the United States put together a new government in Kabul. In 2003, members of Khatami’s circle, through Swiss channels, offered a tentative proposal, dubbed the Grand Bargain, to the United States, seeking to resolve a host of outstanding issues between the two countries. And, in a show of good faith, Khatami initiated negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany over Iran’s nuclear program, with Hassan Rouhani as the lead diplomat.
You already know that this story doesn’t end well.
President George W. Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, lumped Iran in with Iraq and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil,” the United States cavalierly dismissed the Grand Bargain, and it didn’t support the talks between Iran and the EU-3. “That really handed Iran over to the hard-liners,” says Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York–based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “It undermined Khatami, and it led directly to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
Fast-forward to 2017. That same Hassan Rouhani is now Iran’s president, running for reelection next month. Four years ago, having built a coalition of young people, women, liberals, reformists, and the business community, he defeated an array of hard-liners, pledging to end Iran’s international isolation, restore the economy, and open up the country’s civil society. “I have come to destroy extremism,” Rouhani declared during his 2013 campaign, a not-so-subtle reference to Ahmadinejad, his predecessor. During his first term, Rouhani engineered the breakthrough Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the accord between Iran, the United States, and five other world powers to end the long-running nuclear standoff.
Now, with the first round in the election set for May 19, it’s not impossible that history will repeat itself. Rouhani will face off against Ebrahim Raisi, a far-right, ultra-religious extremist, as his most prominent challenger, as well as a hard-line former military commander, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. And while it is widely believed, inside Iran and among Iran-watchers in the United States, that Rouhani will win, the harsh anti-Iran rhetoric emanating from the White House—including Donald Trump’s repeated denunciations of the US-Iran nuclear deal—could undermine Rouhani’s reelection bid and add fuel to charges by hard-liners that Rouhani is too close to the West.