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Making Sense of the Rouhani Presidency

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • June 28, 2013

    Not many expected that Hassan Rouhani would win outright the Iranian Presidency during the first phase of the polling itself. Most thought that he would not be able to win 50% of the vote in the first phase and therefore the election would go the second and final phase for a decision. Hassan Rouhani was seen as the moderate and reformist candidate and the fact that he won outright, led many to believe that a new and a decisive shift had taken place in Iranian politics. Many speculated that this would result in a change of policies, particularly foreign policy, on vital issues such as western inspired sanctions, the Syrian conflict and the nuclear issue. Even Rouhani’s assertion that he would seek ‘constructive interaction’ seemed to encourage this speculation. However his view that the Iran-US relationship suffered from a ‘wound that has not yet healed’ seemed to inject a sense of realism into the debate.

    Although Rouhani will assume the Presidency only on 4 August, yet questions regarding changes that might be possible in Iranian policies are already in the air. Nevertheless, it would be wise to keep certain basic facts in mind before unintended euphoria sets in. It must never be forgotten that Rouhani is not the final arbiter of Iranian policies, for that privilege rests with the ‘Supreme Leader,’ Ayatollah Khamanei who in turn is assisted by a 12 member Guardian Council. Secondly, although Rouhani achieved an impressive margin of victory yet right-wing and conservative elements are by no means negligible in strength. They would watch every step that Rouhani takes with considerable trepidation. And in any case Rouhani has been very much a part of the establishment and privy to most decisions. In fact he served as Ayatollah Khamanei’s representative on the National Security Council.

    Iran’s foremost foreign policy issue is the relationship with the United States. Ever since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the installation of the Ayatollah regime; relations between the two countries have been marked by antagonism, mutual blame and misunderstandings. The US encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran and tried hard to curb Iranian ambitions through economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military threats. Iran too never desisted from exporting its version of Islamic fundamentalism and tried to subvert the pro-US Arab Gulf monarchies. It never let up on the rhetoric of ‘driving’ Israel into the sea and encouraged the Hezbollah/Hamas militia to carry on their armed struggle against Israel. All these actions deeply worried the US about Iran’s ultimate intentions.

    If the Presidential National Security Directives issued by successive US Administrations over the years on the Middle-East are examined, three points stand out in bold relief. First, that US interests in the Gulf are vital to US national security and this includes the ‘security and stability’ of key friendly states [Israel] in the region [emphasis added]. Second, US access to the energy resources of the region must remain unimpeded and third that the US is prepared to defend its vital interests with force, if necessary. What concerns the US most is the safety and security of Israel, for Israel is a significant factor in domestic US politics and therefore even if the ‘threat’ to Israel is largely rhetorical it has to be met. Of the nine vetoes exercised by the US in the UN Security Council in the period 2000-2003, eight were to defend Israel. No modern day US President can afford to politically ignore the reach and power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.

    That Iran faces formidable opposition from the western powers is a fact of life. There is a large US military presence in the Gulf, with the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain. Iran feels that their presence is designed to intimidate it. That EU imposed sanctions, fully supported by the US, are biting is also a fact that cannot be overlooked; with inflation running at 31.5%, with oil exports down and yet there has been no significant domestic protest. In all such situations the support for the regime tends to harden rather than weaken, for sanctions are seen as trying to cripple Iran’s legitimate aspirations and its place in the world. As witnessed in Saddam’s Iraq, domestic opposition to the regime in such circumstances is seen as ‘unpatriotic.’ If full scale UN imposed sanctions could not bring down the Saddam regime in Iraq, present day western efforts are hardly likely to cause anything more than minor irritations to the Iranian regime.

    Thus President-Elect Rouhani faces formidable challenges on assumption of power and has his task cut out for him. Apart from the nuclear issue and sanctions there is Syrian question and the looming sectarian strife in the Middle-East. Rouhani has the experience of dealing with national security affairs for almost 16 years and has developed extensive diplomatic skills. Admittedly his first initiative, when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003-05, that Iran was prepared for a temporary suspension of nuclear enrichment did not find favor with the western powers. In the mistaken belief that Iran was about to ‘concede,’ the western powers, to their regret, prevaricated on Iran’s offer. In his first press conference, soon after the elections, Rouhani made it clear that his previous offer was no longer on the table and that it was time to move on. The western powers had once again misjudged Iranian intentions. It would be naïve to think that the soft spoken and suave Rouhani is a push-over.

    At the heart of the matter is the continuing US-Iranian estrangement. Just a glance at history would show that great civilizations and empires have flourished in this region based on Persian power. Persia in the old days and modern day Iran cannot be denied its due role in the politics of the Middle-East. It would be folly to fashion policies based on the assumption that Iranian power can be irretrievably broken. No peace initiative will work unless it has Iranian participation. The French seem to have recognized the validity of this approach when they indicated that any settlement in Syria would have to be with full Iranian participation. An accommodation with Iran would have immediate benefits in Afghanistan also. The coveted energy resources of Central Asia would find their natural outlet. It has to be recognized that most of Jihadi Islam, that is so severely antagonistic to western interests, is Sunni centric and not of Shiite origin.

    EU imposed sanctions on Iran are going nowhere, for the Europeans seem to have only pushed themselves into a cul-de-sac. For the oil embargo to work, the key lies with China that imports about 22% of Iranian oil production. With China showing no signs of co-operating, the Europeans have only let themselves become entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies; with all its concomitant political implications!

    On the other hand, any US-Iranian accommodation will have to take into account US strategic interests in the region. The US would have to be assured of the security of Israel and the free flow of energy resources from the Gulf region. Unless that is done US-Iran relations will remain in limbo, no matter how much Rouhani wishes to the contrary. Therefore, in the circumstances that exist at present, the Rouhani Presidency is unlikely to see any major changes. There may be a change of nuance, maybe even the harsh rhetoric may die down, but the essential stand-off will remain. It is time that both the US and Iran reached for an accommodation.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.