In a crowded field of eight “approved” candidates, approved that is by a vetting body called the Guardian Council, Hassan Rouhani a moderate pragmatist made a surprisingly strong showing in the recent Iranian presidential elections. He will assume his office at the beginning of August. Rouhani garnered over 50% of the vote-far ahead of his nearest rival. Under Iran’s election rules any candidate getting more than 50% of the vote stands elected without the need for a runoff between the two candidates securing the largest number of votes.
The 64 year old Rouhani belongs to Iran’s clerical establishment but his career has been far more eclectic. A traditional Iranian cleric’s activities would be expected to largely center on Shia theological pursuits. Rouhani on the contrary has a PhD in Psychology from a Scottish university ; was chief negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program with the west in the early 2000’s where he agreed to a temporary halt in Iran’s enrichment of uranium; and is reported to be a linguist who is comfortable in English, French, German and Russian.
If only linguistic proficiency could be the catalyst in resolving tangled issues such as Iran’s nuclear program! His soon to be predecessor, the irrepressible Ahmedinejad was a bit of a maverick with a reputation for unpredictability which had begun to grate on the Iranian consciousness. His government had failed to improve economic conditions of ordinary Iranians and his at times intemperate rhetoric and perceived inflexibility, had not only earned the opprobrium of the west, but also a slew of UN economic sanctions which have continued to have a progressively deleterious impact on oil- rich Iran’s economy. The nuclear standoff also contains an open threat from both the United States and Israel of taking preemptive military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. Whether this action of last resort would be undertaken with or without UN sanction, is not clear at this moment and is a part of the calculated ambiguity which informs the actions of more powerful countries vis- a- vis less puissant ones.
Be that as it may, I believe that an importunate attack on Iran is likely to have disastrous repercussions. Iran has the capability to retaliate against western assets which could possibly plunge the global economy into a prolonged recession. Another factor worthy of note is the pride which most Iranians evince for their country’s achievements in the nuclear field. If the military option is exercised by the US or Israel, Iranians will likely overwhelmingly support their government. The animosity and bitterness in Iran would be palpable which could be exploited by violent extremists for the furtherance of their nefarious agendas.
Rouhani wants to initiate a new chapter of less contentious relations with the west. It appears that he wants to be more flexible and accommodative than Iran’s previous administration. This opportunity must be grasped by the west. Rouhani of course does not enjoy untrammeled executive power. Given Iran’s somewhat opaque political arrangements, a common misperception can exist that the president of Iran is the fount of executive power. Under the Iranian constitution power is dispersed and shared among multiple, oft times, competing constituencies: the Parliament, the Guardian Council, the Revolutionary guards corps, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei at the apex. Khamenei is the final arbiter of Iran’s policies, particularly foreign affairs and national security. Foreign governments negotiating with Iran would do well to keep these considerations in mind. Effective diplomacy would entail getting Khamenei’s ear-not an easy but also not an impossible task. When I accompanied President Leghari of Pakistan in a meeting with Khamenei in Tehran in 1994, I found the latter well informed and receptive. The US because of the rupture of diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979, has been unable to take the measure of Khamenei from the vantage point of Tehran. The west has relied more on the stick and less on the carrot. There is a need to recalibrate the west’s policies on Iran.
Finally it should be clear to the P5+1 negotiators that it is probably unrealistic to coerce Iran through punitive sanctions to give up uranium enrichment. That right for peaceful purposes under international safeguards is permitted to signatories of the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a member.
It also appears anomalous to many countries that while the west’s energies are devoted to suppressing Iran’s nuclear program, little attention is paid to the only undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel, which is a non-signatory of the NPT. This is interpreted in these circles as an attempt by the west to perpetuate Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the Middle East and thus another example of the west’s double standards in the region.
A much better approach to secure safety and security in the Middle East would be to encourage the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. Such zones have been established in other regions with the UN’s support and involvement. The NPT follow up process calls for negotiations among the Middle East countries, leading to the establishment of such a zone. Last fall the Egyptian delegation walked out of a UN meeting in Geneva on this subject because of the reported backpedalling on it of the US and some other delegations. Such inconsistent policies arouse both suspicions and anger. We need to be evenhanded if we are to be trusted by others.