Iran's Olive Branch
What Rouhani's Presidential Victory Means for Iran-U.S. Relations
Photo: Dr. Hassan Rouhani visits patients at U.S. field hospital (Bam, Iran, December 23, 2003) / Marty Bahamonde, FEMA
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most undemocratic countries in the world, but not all the undemocratic states are alike. Iran has a vibrant and growing democratic culture. Since the 1979 revolution, its total number of university students has increased from 176,000 to 4.4 million, with women making up the majority of them. Its movies have received awards in important international festivals, including the Academy Awards. Numerous books by English-writing liberal (Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and others), conservative (Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and Leo Strauss) and communitarian (Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Alasdair McIntire) thinkers have been translated into Persian.
As for its politics, although the Supreme Leader, in consultation with the Expediency Discernment Council, sets the main policies of the country, Iran holds four sets of elections for the president, city councils, the parliament, and the Assembly of Experts—a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and can theoretically sack him as well.
These elections are not completely free; all candidates must be vetted by the Guardian Council—a constitutional body that also reviews laws approved by parliament to ensure their consistency with the constitution and Islamic teachings. But there is genuine competition between the candidates, and during nationally televised debates the candidates criticize public affairs very seriously. In the presidential election on June 14, not only were the negotiations with P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) condemned, but important state secrets regarding the negotiations were also revealed.
Eight candidates vied for the presidency—two of whom withdrew from the race a few days before the election. Although all the candidates were officials of the regime, they all did not have the same type of relations with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The winner, Hassan Rouhani—a legal scholar and diplomat—is very close to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who declared his own candidacy but was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Rouhani also declared many times that if former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who is despised by Khamenei, decides to run, he would withdraw from the elections.
Rouhani’s victory marks a significant break with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure. In his campaign speeches and the debates with the other candidates, Rouhani severely criticized Ahmadinejad’s domestic policies and promised that, if elected, he would put into practice those articles of the constitution that recognize the fundamental rights of the citizens, release political prisoners, and end the house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mousavi’s wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard—the three leaders of the Green Movement that protested the allegedly fraudulent re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009. These positions distanced Rouhani from Supreme Leader Ayatolla Ali Khamenei more than any of the other seven candidates.
But Rouhani did not end his criticisms there. More than any other candidate, Rouhani objected to Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and the negotiations of his administration with P5+1 that were led by Saeed Jalili (who was a candidate himself), which have resulted in sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council and the imposition of sanctions. Rouhani harshly criticized Ahmadinejad’s declaration that the Security Council’s resolutions were “nothing but a piece of paper,” adding that such declarations have caused deterioration of Iran’s relations with its neighbors and other countries in the region. Most importantly, Rouhani declared, “The number of our friends in the world does not exceed the number of fingers in one hand,” and promised that, if elected, he will address these issues with détente and negotiations.
Rouhani has also expressed desire for a rapprochement with the United States. Many months ago he said, “I do not accept the premise that war with the United States is inevitable. War is not in the interest of either side. . . . We can have a win-win resolution of our conflict with the United States. . . . If the United States is honest (about a diplomatic resolution of the conflict), reaching an agreement is possible.” The first goal of the negotiations, according to Rouhani, must be to reduce tension between the two countries. The second goal is termination of the economic sanctions by the United States in return for more transparency by Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Khamenei has taken a harsher line, but he too has expressed openness to dialogue with the United States. In his annual speech on the occasion of the beginning of the new Iranian year on March 21, he declared that if the United States recognizes Iran’s rights, “I will have no objection to negotiations.” Khamenei added that if Iran’s nuclear rights in the framework of Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty are recognized, including enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, he will agree to any measure of transparency.
Although the issues between Iran and the United States are serious, Rouhani’s election offers the opportunity for peaceful negotiations that promise far greater success than further sanctions, let alone regime change, by the United States.
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A wall of distrust has been built between Iran and the United States since the 1979 Revolution. Resolving current disputes requires time and the desire for good-faith negotiations by both sides. There are four major sources of tension that must be addressed.
Khamenei claims that for the past 34 years the United States has been pursuing the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. In his opinion, the goal of the economic sanctions is not to address the nuclear dispute, but to encourage the Iranian people to overthrow the government.
Khamenei does have reason to be skeptical of America’s intentions: he has witnessed the toppling of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and a fourth attempt underway in Syria. These overthrows have been costly, politically, economically, and in terms of casualties. They have given rise to sectarian wars and terrorist violence. If the United States is not pursuing regime change in Iran, despite its policies elsewhere in the region, it must demonstrate it through concrete steps to solve the remaining issues of contention.
Iran’s nuclear program
According to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran has not had a nuclear weapon program since 2003. The Estimate was reaffirmed by the Obama administration in 2010 and 2011. Since then, American officials have continued to claim that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and that a diplomatic solution to the dispute is preferable.
For instance, on March 12, James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence:
We assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU before this activity is discovered. . . . Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige, and regional influence and give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should a decision be made to do so. We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
And on November 14, 2012, President Obama said:
With respect to Iran, I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem. I was very clear before the campaign, I was clear during the campaign, and I’m now clear after the campaign: we’re not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon. But I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically. We’ve imposed the toughest sanctions in history. It is having an impact on Iran’s economy.
There should be a way in which they [Iran] can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.”
And so, yes, I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us, but the international community, to see if we can get this things resolved. I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through, but that would be very much the preferable option.
The position of the United States is the following: (a) Iran does not have a nuclear weapon program; (b) Iran has a right to peaceful use of nuclear energy; but (c) Iran must demonstrate that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. In turn, Iran claims: (a) Islam bans nuclear weapons and the world and in particular the Middle East must become nuclear-free; (b) Iran’s rights to peaceful use of nuclear technology must be recognized, and (c) Iran is prepared to demonstrate utmost transparency for proving the peaceful nature of its nuclear program.
Economic sactions against Iran are taking the same counterproductive toll they took in Iraq.
Thus, the dispute is over two major issues. First, what does “peaceful use of nuclear energy” mean? Is uranium enrichment a non-peaceful use? According to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, of which Iran is a signatory, Iran indeed has the right to enrich uranium.
Second, how should Iran prove the non-military nature of its nuclear program? This requires a road map with a time frame agreeable to both sides, so that all the required inspections of Iran’s program can be completed to confirm its non-military nature. In other words, inspection of Iran’s nuclear program cannot continue indefinitely.
The United States claims that Iran’s nuclear program is the target of its economic sanctions. In his message to the Iranian people on March 21—the occasion of the New Iranian year—the President said, “The people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price because of your leaders’ unwillingness to address this issue.”
The economic sanctions have indeed had the “crippling effect” that the Obama administration has claimed. Iran’s income from exporting oil totaling $110 billion in 2011, was cut by almost 40 percent in 2012 and to a third of the 2011 level this year. The sanctions have also cut off Iran’s banks and financial institution from the rest of the world. Dissatisfied with these results, the U.S. Congress is tryingto completely ban the export of Iran’s oil as well as almost all non-oil exports. The United States recently sanctioned eight Iranian petrochemical companies, which represent a major part of Iran’s non-oil exporting industries. During the Iranian year of 1390 (March 2011–March 2012) Iran exported 18.2 million tons of petrochemical products worth $14.2 billion to more than 60 countries. In the following year, petrochemical exports dropped to 16 million tons worth $12 billion. By further sanctioning Iran’s petrochemical industry, Iran will lose its share of the market to Saudi Arabia, and thousands of Iranian workers will lose their jobs.
The Obama administration has added Iran’s car industry—an employer of more than one million people—to the sanctions list. In 2011 Iran produced 1,648,000 cars, making it the thirteenth largest auto manufacturer. Sanctions reduced production 42 percent in 2012, and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs.
Despite Obama’s pronouncements, Khamenei’s belief that the goal of the sanctions is regime change in Iran has some justification. The U.S. Senate is considering an Iraq-style regime change policy for Iran, whereby economic sanctions would end only if Iran “moves toward a free and democratically elected government.”
If enacted, this regime-change policy would be extremely dangerous. The 13 years of sanctions the United States imposed on Iraq did not force Saddam Hussein from power, but they took a terrible toll on Iraqi society, including the death of more than 500,000 children under the age of five. Although this remains a horrifying figure, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed it was worth the price of toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime.
America’s economic sanctions are taking a similar counterproductive toll. While Khamenei and the Islamic Republic remain in power, Iran’s middle class, the agents for peaceful transition to democracy, has been reduced to poverty and groups promoting greater human rights and democracy have been marginalized.
The crisis in Syria
Many of the regimes the United States has targeted, such as those of Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Muammar Gaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad, were and are criminal. But military intervention has not only failed to transform Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya into stable democratic states, but it has also accelerated mass violence, terrorism, and genocide in the region. America’s escalating intervention in Syria can only discourage Iran about its intentions for peace.
The saber-rattling of world powers in Syria only increases the risk of a horrifying outcome from intervention. While the United States, western governments, and their allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and others) have been supporting the Syrian opposition, Russia, China, and Iran are propping up the Assad regime. All these nations together are in fact cooperating to prolong the civil war and destroy Syria. The conflict has already killed more than 93,000 people, wounded hundreds of thousands, and displaced 5.5 million internal and external refugees. Both sides, according to the United Nations, have committed “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
The United States can radically alter the international politics of the Syrian crisis by calling for direct negotiations among the interested powers, including Iran. The goal must be to help Syria transition to a stable democracy with free elections—a policy that Iran supports. Such a step would not only help the region but also offer reassurance to Iran about America’s intentions and goals.
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On February 15, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed on a visit to a university in Doha that Iran is being transformed into a military dictatorship. “That is how we see it,” Clinton said in a town hall-style meeting of students in Qatar, a decidedly undemocratic country. “We see that the government of Iran—the Supreme Leader, the President, the parliament—is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” she added.
The recent presidential elections in Iran contradict that claim. Major General (retired) Mohsen Rezaei, chief of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps for 16 years, and Brigadier General (retired) Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, former commander of the IRGC air wing and former commander of the national police, have been presidential candidates several times. None of them was supported by Khamenei or the ayatollahs, and none of them have won. Saeed Jalili, a candidate reportedly very close to Khamenei, lost badly. Instead the election went to Rouhani, who favored negotiating with the United States instead of Europe.“Most of the Europeans need permission [from the United States], but the Americans are like the headman of a village,” he said.
President-Elect Hassan Rouhani will take the oath of office on August 7 in the Majles, the Iranian parliament. He will then submit his cabinet to the Majles for approval. Although Rouhani’s election will not transform the Islamic Republic into a democratic nation, it marks a step in the right direction.
President Obama should seize this new opportunity for negotiations that Rouhani’s election has afforded. American sanctions, from Iraq to Cuba to North Korea have utterly failed. By contrast, radical U-turns towards re-establishing diplomatic relations have enjoyed surprising successes such as President Nixon’s overtures to China and the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which recognized the legitimacy of the Eastern Bloc and helped further human rights its peaceful transition to democracy. Relations between Iran and the United States can be mended and entirely transformed, if President Obama is willing to change course.
This article was translated by Professor Muhammad Sahimi of the University of Southern California.