Iran’s next president, Hassan Rouhani, seen as best hope for ending nuclear standoff with West

June 15, 2013

Hassan Rouhani casts his ballot during the Friday presidential vote. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Almost a day after polls closed, Iranian authorities have announced that the race's leading moderate, a cleric and former nuclear negotiator named Hassan Rouhani, has won the election outright to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran.

A number of Iran-watchers in the U.S. have considered Rouhani the best possible presidential candidate for easing tensions with the West and perhaps even deescalating the worsening nuclear standoff. While there are some important reasons for skepticism – foreign policy and the nuclear issue are controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and not by the president, for example, and Rouhani could always defy outside expectations – there is real cause for optimism on Iran for the first time in years.

Rouhani's record on the nuclear issues shows that, while he is certainly a supporter of peacefully enriching uranium, as many Iranians are, he is also predisposed to compromise, diplomacy and cooperation, all promising signs for deescalating tensions. He led Iran's nuclear negotiations from 2003 to 2005, gaining a reputation for diplomacy that earned him the nickname "diplomatic sheikh." During that tenure, Iran agreed to halt its nuclear enrichment and widened cooperation with international nuclear inspectors. He served under reformist President Mohammaed Khatami Rouhani and authored a 1,200-page memoir of his time in the job, titled "National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy," which defends a peaceful nuclear enrichment program but also emphasizes the importance of diplomatic outreach to the West. It was Rouhani's memoir that revealed that Tehran received but rejected an outreach offer from the U.S. in 2004.

Few expect a sudden reversal in Iran's nuclear program or its stance toward the West. But, at least on the latter, the country's political establishment has appeared to be in the midst of a debate on whether it might be time to engage the U.S. in broad discussions. The current foreign minister recently sent Khamenei a handwritten letter urging exactly that, and there have been reports since October hinting that Tehran and Washington may be cautiously considering a direct dialogue to resolve their many disputes. Rouhani, as president, could be another prominent voice arguing internally on behalf of dialogue and cooperation.

The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, in a recent profile of Rouhani, wrote that he had won particular support "among liberal-minded Iranians, especially the young" for his perceived connection to "the reform movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the extremism that took hold with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005." Rouhani has emphasized rights for women and minorities and freedom of speech.

Rouhani's support in the election appears to have come largely for his stance on domestic economic and social issues, which have trumped nuclear politics in the campaign. Still, the issues are linked; Iran's international isolation and the runaway inflation it suffers are due in large part to Western-led sanctions over the nuclear program. Rouhani himself said during a recent presidential debate, according to a translation by a Guardian journalist, "Our centrifuges are good to spin only if people's economy is also spinning in right direction."

This does not mean that Rouhani is poised to dismantle the centrifuges or to overrule Khamenei, the supreme leader, who is the ultimate authority on military and foreign policy issues and is considered a hard-liner on both. But Rouhani's views are not a secret, and it's worth noting that the judicial body charged with vetting presidential candidates, and seen as closely allied with the supreme leader, barred some candidates but let Rouhani run.

There are three reasons, according to National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi, why Rouhani might be able to edge Khamenei and thus Iran toward compromise. First, he would most likely populate key ministries and institutions with like-minded pragmatists and technocrats, replacing the hard-liners who have filled them for eight years. Second, he has a record of finding "common interests" between the West and Iran, for deals that can be palatable to both the U.S. and Khamenei. And third, he appears to see the risks of confrontation as exceeding the risks of compromise, a calculus that Khamenei might not share but which could be an internal counterweight to more hard-line officials.

Rouhani may offer the supreme leader an opportunity to allow a more conciliatory approach to the West without compromising his hard-liner credentials. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote on the think tank's blog that "as the author of Iran's previous dabbling in nuclear concessions, he can be the fall guy, yet again, for a deal that the [Supreme] Leader wishes to disavow." She compared this moment to 1988, when then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini wanted to ease the country out of its eight-year war with Iraq but couldn't afford, politically, to declare that he was withdrawing Iran from the conflict. He instead elevated a pragmatist legislator Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to commander-in-chief of the military with, according to Maloney, "an implicit mission to end the war as quickly as possible, which he did."

Iran and the United States have reached out to one other previously. That includes, in 2003, Iran to the U.S., and President Obama, in 2009, directly to Khamenei, who rebuffed him. At no point have both countries been simultaneously willing to reciprocate. We're not at that point yet, but Rouhani is uniquely well situated to get us there.

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