Hassan Rouhani a moderate Iranian cleric assumed the presidency of Iran on August 4, 2013. He had won the Iranian presidential election last June. Rouhani took two oaths of office: a private ceremony witnessed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Mohammed Khamenei and the public ceremony in the Iranian parliament before the Iranian parliamentarians and assembled heads of state and other foreign dignitaries. The United States was not invited by the Iranians to the public ceremony as the US and Iran do not have diplomatic relations. These were severed in 1979 after some Iranian radicals had stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and taken over 50 American diplomats hostage. It would be recalled that the hostage crisis had lasted for well over a year and plunged the relationship between the US and Iran to its lowest nadir. True to his moderate credentials Rouhani promised to reach out to the international community. He stated that his government would walk the path of “détente” with the world and urged the international community to engage with Iran through dialogue instead of sanctions. The US responded by saying that it was ready to work with Mr.Rohani’s government if it was serious about engagement especially over the international community’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.
The US and other western countries who have shown concern about Iran’s nuclear program suspecting that Iran was trying to become a nuclear weapons power, should be happy at this change in the office of the Iranian head of state from the unpredictable Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, to the pragmatic present incumbent. Rouhani was chief negotiator of Iran for the nuclear talks in the early years of the present millennium. Between 2003-2005 he suspended uranium enrichment hoping that this concession would lead to a permanent solution of the nuclear issue with the West. Not unexpectedly, Rouhani was criticized by his hardline opponents in Tehran for the gesture, and when the talks did not progress, he was removed from his position.
That was almost a decade ago. Rouhani, against the expectation of observers of Iranian politics is back in the limelight. He was supported in his election bid by two previous Iranian presidents namely, Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, both representing the moderate faction of Iranian politics.What is more according to some observers he enjoys a good and even warm relationship with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ahmedinejad and Khamanei had fallen out during the former’s second term as president which made policy making in Iran more difficult. Ahmedinejad in his second term, perhaps sensitized by the serious toll the onerous UN mandated sanctions were wreaking on the Iranian economy, was willing to show more flexibility in the nuclear talks between the P5 + 1 (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) but the hardliners reportedly neutralized him.
Rouhani’s ascendency to the presidency is a golden opportunity which comes but rarely in the affairs of nations. Another important action taken by Rouhani is to appoint veteran Iranian diplomat Javad Zarif to the post of Foreign Minister. Zarif was Permanent Representative of Iran to the UN in New York a decade ago. He was educated in the US and was highly regarded as a diplomat. He has experience of negotiating with senior American diplomats. To arrive at a negotiated diplomatic solution concerning Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s right to uranium enrichment will have to be recognized by the US and other western countries because it is enshrined in the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT). But Iran could be persuaded to agree to more stringent safeguards about its nuclear program under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is the international nuclear watchdog. It is worth noting that Rouhani because of his flexibility and more importantly, familiarity with the West from his time as a PhD student and teacher in Scotland, would be an interlocutor whom the US and other European countries could do business with. On a bilateral plane, this would be hugely important for both Iran and the US as it is an opportunity to unfreeze a relationship which has remained moribund in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Iran will become even more important as the energies of the major Arab countries-including the most important and powerful country, Egypt- are being enervated through domestic turmoil. It would therefore be prudent for the US to press the restart button vis-à-vis Iran, a country whose 70 million strong population, particularly its younger elements representing the youth bulge, has markedly pro-US sentiments.This goodwill for the US in the Middle East which currently is in short supply, should be capitalized and built upon.
A couple of days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the House of Representatives passed a bill encapsulating a further series of sanctions against Iran’s attempts to export its oil.The bill would now move for consideration by the US Senate. This measure which is not yet US law, but if it is so enacted, would be interpreted in Tehran as an attempt by the US to strangulate Iran economically.The timing of this legislative measure could not have been more inopportune as it sends the wrong signal to Iranians particularly the hardliners. It has been rightly criticized by some US experts on Iran. Let’s hope that this action will be put on the back burner and not be allowed to vitiate the hopeful atmosphere which is being built up following Rouhani’s elevation to the presidency.