Western hopes that Iran’s newly elected president signals a new moderate shift by the mullahs who run the country may be misplaced, given Hasan Rowhani’s support of the leadership’s nuclear program, some experts said.
Rowhani’s pledge to “build trust” may open possibilities for dialogue to ease tensions over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, but Iran analysts said the Islamic republic’s unelected ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has no real differences with Rowhani, a man who has been part of the regime for decades and made the cut of its approved candidates.
Rowhani’s approach is to move forward with Iran’s ultimate aims but to deal with Western opposition “more intelligently,” said Marc Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer who focused on Iranian sources.
Rowhani’s objective is “to not diminish the ultimate nuclear objective, which is weaponization, but to slow down certain aspects (of the nuclear program), to make concessions but keep your eye on the goal,” he said.
Rowhani’s presidential campaign and much of the election debate focused on Iran’s economy, which has been crippled by international sanctions aimed at curbing its disputed nuclear program.
On Monday, Rowhani spoke of moderation, trust and new beginnings, but he left no doubt that Iran’s nuclear program will proceed. “We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries,” Rowhani said, according to Press TV, the official Iranian news broadcaster. “The basis of politics is constructive interaction with the world.”
He also said there’ll be no halt to uranium enrichment and no direct U.S. dialogue without a pledge to stay out of Iranian affairs.
The campaign showed “a growing consensus within Iran’s political establishment, including hard-liners, that Iran needs to find a way out of the nuclear crisis, not by getting a nuclear weapon but by cutting some kind of a deal,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.
Meir Javendanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said Rowhani’s election did not happen against the will of the supreme leader.
“I’m seeing a change in the policy and approach of the supreme leader,” Javendanfar said.
Rowhani won 50.7% of the vote, running against six final candidates (one dropped out) approved by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, a body of Khamenei appointees. Friday’s election went smoothly, unlike in 2009, when Iranians flooded the streets to protest what many claimed was a rigged vote count and the protests were suppressed with violence.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, opposition candidates from 2009, remain under house arrest.
Rowhani on his own suggested suspending uranium enrichment in 2004 and delivered short-lived results. Iran at the time was worried about antagonizing the United States after its invasion of neighboring Iraq the previous year, Gerecht said. Rowhani wrote in his memoir of the negotiations he sought to keep building confidence with the international community while building Iran’s nuclear capacity as negotiations continued, Gerecht said.
During the campaign, Rowhani criticized the government’s confrontational foreign policy style, saying he could have achieved the same nuclear progress while avoiding crippling international sanctions that have throttled Iran’s economy.
Iran’s struggling economy was a major campaign issue, and it was impossible to address it without discussing sanctions and the nuclear strategy that has caused the United States, Europe and the United Nations to limit Iran’s access to goods and currency that grease the wheels of commerce. Rowhani stood out for his harsh criticism of the confrontational policies and approach of the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The openness of the debate about nuclear negotiations and sanctions during the campaign, and the lack of official pushback from the Islamic regime since the election suggests that Rowhani will be allowed an opportunity to seek an accommodation with the West, Maloney said.
“He would appear to have some mandate to deal with the nuclear issue in some manner different than his predecessor did,” Maloney said. “There was considerable degree of running room given to all the candidates to talk about the nuclear issue in a way never before seen in Iranian politics. To my mind, that’s a signal.”
It appears his position has wide acceptance in the regime, and “there may be a brief honeymoon period where if he can show a way out, it will be considered,” she said.
Despite a growing chorus in Iran’s parliament blaming Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy for crippling the economy, international sanctions have not swayed the regime from its nuclear course. The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is violating its international agreements by refusing to permit access to its nuclear facilities. Iran says it is working on nuclear energy; the United States says it is illegally working on an atomic bomb.
President Obama has said he prefers to resolve the issue peacefully, but negotiations have gone nowhere, according to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. The U.S. Senate voted in May on a resolution asking Obama to impose tougher economic sanctions — such as barring Iran from using its oil revenue to buy anything other than food and medicine.
Yet Iran in the past year has ramped up its installation of advanced, more efficient centrifuges that can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Rowhani, a cleric, was aligned from the start with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian revolution in 1978. He has supported Iran’s nuclear quest since its inception.
During the past month of presidential campaigning, Rowhani said, “Spinning centrifuges are great, but a functioning industry is good, too,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Takeyh said conditions for negotiations have improved because “you have president of the United States and (future) president of Iran that both want to deal on this issue. They may not get there, but there’s some kind of an alignment.”
On other issues, Rowhani indicated he will stay the course set by his predecessor and the supreme leader.
He has referred to Syria as a beachhead against Zionism and expressed support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in his civil war against a Sunni majority demanding democratic rule, Takeyh said. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, has such broad-based support in Iran’s leadership that its support for Assad and its terrorist acts against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world never became a campaign issue, Takeyh said.
On the nuclear issue, Rowhani is likely to offer a suspension of 20% uranium enrichment, a focus of U.S. and Israeli concern, Takeyh said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will not accept Iran crossing the “red line” of a 250-kilogram stockpile of 20% enriched uranium because Iran could then quickly produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb without detection by international monitors.
Ahmadinejad’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had offered to suspend 20% enrichment if Western powers lifted banking sanctions, but “we weren’t willing to pay the price,” Takeyh said.
Gerecht said Khamenei may be willing to accept such an offer, but the Iranian nuclear program has progressed to the point where that offer is no longer significant.
Iran has ramped up its installation of advanced centrifuges that are much more efficient, making its 20% stockpile less and less relevant to its breakout capacity, Gerecht said.
“Given the huge centrifuge production, if they keep increasing uranium centrifuges, having stockpiled 20% is far less critical than it used to be because if you have all these centrifuges, you can go to breakout capacity increasingly quickly,” he said. “It doesn’t take all that long if you have enough centrifuges, you can go from 5% enriched to weapons grade at a pretty rapid rate.”
Gerecht is not even sure Khamenei could be convinced to go along.
“He has become very fond of the ‘up yours’ approach,” Gerecht said. “I think he enjoys it immensely.”