Historians often suggest that Iran’s clerical regime resurrected the shah’satomic infrastructure after Iraq invaded the country in 1980. In this telling, deterrence and self-defense are at the core of the Iranian nuclear calculus. But Rouhani says the revolutionaries’ attraction to nuclear science actually began when they were still lingering in exile. In 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciples appeared certain to assume power, an Iranian scientific delegation journeyed to Paris and implored the aging mullah to scrap the nuclear program, which was exorbitant and inefficient. The cagy Khomeini ignored such pleas. A year before Saddam Hussein’s armies attacked Iran, Khomeini had decided to preserve his nuclear inheritance.
During the initial decade of the Islamic republic, the regime’s preoccupation with consolidating power and prosecuting its war with Iraq eclipsed other priorities. Still, Rouhani describes a determined effort to secure nuclear technologies from abroad and complete the fuel cycle. Those efforts were redoubled during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency in the early 1990s and were sustained by the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Indeed, Rouhani is at pains to disentangle nuclear policy from Iran’s contentious politics, insisting that all governments should share credit for the program’s progress. “I respect all individuals who in the path of nuclear empowerment have taken important steps,” he notes. And throughout, he sticks to the argument that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Rouhani spent much of his tenure negotiating with the three European powers — Britain, France and Germany — over what kind of nuclear program Iran was allowed to have. The signature event of his time as a negotiator was his country’s voluntary suspension of its program in 2004.
Those were heady days in the Middle East, with America’s shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq intimidating other recalcitrant regimes, such as Iran’s, into accommodation. “No one thought that Saddam’s regime would fall in three weeks,” Rouhani recalls. “The military leadership had anticipated that Saddam would not fall easily and that America would have to fight the Iraqi army for at least six months to a year before reaching Saddam’s palace.” Yet, the proximity of American guns behooved the theocracy to act with caution and halt its nuclear activities.
Still, Rouhani has spent the past decade slyly suggesting that Iran used the suspension period to establish the technological foundation that enabled the nuclear program’s subsequent progress. I suspect that such claims are overstated; Iran’s suspension was a product of fear and thus fairly comprehensive. Instead, the gains Iran has made since the program resumed are a tribute to the ingenuity of its scientific establishment, which is often — and unwisely — discounted by the West.
Whatever political support Rouhani has among Iran’s reformers, he is not one of them; political freedom has rarely been a priority for him. (During the late 1990s, when Khatami and his allies were seeking to expand individual rights and strengthen Iran’s anemic civil society, Rouhani was indifferent to their efforts.) Still, unlike many militant ideologues, he belongs to a more tempered wing of the theocracy that sees the nuclear debate in the larger context of Iran’s international relations. Iran’s new president was a persistent critic of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric. In the recent presidential race, Rouhani stressed the importance of the economy — in particular, Iran’s declining standard of living.
Throughout his book, Rouhani complains that the Islamic republic often takes extreme positions and then finds it difficult to back down — whether issuing needlessly extravagant demands for the release of American hostages after the U.S. Embassy was seized in 1979 or, during the Iran-Iraq war, insisting that it would not end the conflict until Hussein was deposed. Still, in those days, the regime could at least count on the stature of Khomeini to extricate the nation from predicaments of its own making.
In his memoir, Rouhani implies that, since the death of the grand ayatollah, the country has at times been adrift, indecisive. “Few are willing to take on the burden of difficult national decisions,” he writes, “for they know that those without such responsibility will loudly rebuke and slander them, causing the public to lose confidence in the system.” This is a lament of a politician seeking to solve problems in a tough environment.
However, Rouhani’s case is not without its contradictions. He insists that Iran can expand its nuclear program while reclaiming its commercial contracts, even though today Iran stands in violation of numerous Security Council resolutions and cannot reenter the global economy until it meets U.N. demands. Tone and style matter, but what awaits President Rouhani is the hard trade-off of dispensing with critical aspects of the program in exchange for relief from sanctions. (After a decade of desultory diplomacy, the West is unlikely to settle for his pledge of greater nuclear transparency.)
Given how easily Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dispensed with the theocracy’s previous presidents, the question hovering over Rouhani is clear: How much power will he really have? Even in Iran’s congested political order, the office of the presidency is consequential. Presidents staff ministries, formulate budgets, and have a say on national security. Yet in Rouhani’s nearly 700-page book, Khatami largely fades from the scene; he is often consulted but not always heeded. On critical issues — the nuclear imbroglio, the challenges of the post-2001 Middle East — Khatami remains in the background, often the government’s public face but rarely its most influential voice.
The presidency’s limitations are compounded by the fact that Rouhani is assuming power at a time when Iran is locked in multiple confrontations. Domestically, aggrieved conservatives are likely to regroup and challenge him since the presidency has escaped their grasp. Abroad, much has changed since 2003, when Rouhani first wrestled with the nuclear issue. At that time, he was seeking to preserve what Iran did not yet have; today he will be pressed to sustain its considerable gains. And then there is the sectarian cold war that is uneasily descending on the Middle East, pitting Iran and its Shiite allies against Saudi Arabia and the Sunni bloc. This conflict is playing out in Iraq, Lebanon and, of course, Syria. Rouhani may seek to inject a measure of pragmatism into Iran’s foreign relations, but he will find himself constrained by circumstances beyond his control.
In the past, when Iran’s contending factions commanded different state institutions, the theocracy rarely cobbled together a lasting consensus. Iran spoke in multiple languages as pragmatism and ideology pressed the state in different directions. Promises made by the president were often negated by the supreme leader, and the Foreign Ministry’s moderation was belied by the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorism. Who spoke for Iran was a question that bedeviled the clerical regime’s most patient interlocutors.
Should Rouhani manage to assert his authority over the Islamic republic’s multiple power centers, he will truly become a transformational president. But that burden is his alone, and there is not much America can do to ease his path.
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