I had the chance this past week to take part in two press meetings with Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, and they left me with several distinct impressions:
1) He’s not here by accident. That is, this Iranian charm offensive is not because Rouhani, unlike his predecessor, went to charm school. Powerful domestic pressures have driven him here. 2) We are finally going to see a serious, face-to-face negotiation between top Iranian and U.S. diplomats over Iran’s nuclear program. 3) I have no clue and would not dare predict whether these negotiations will lead to a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. 4) The fact that we’re now going to see serious negotiations raises the stakes considerably. It means that if talks fail, President Barack Obama will face a real choice between military action and permanent sanctions that could help turn Iran into a giant failed state. 5) Pray that option 2 succeeds.
Let’s go through these. Think about Iran’s recent election that brought Rouhani to the presidency. Iran’s Guardian Council approved only eight candidates, and two dropped out before the balloting. All were considered “safe” from the regime’s point of view — no authentic liberals — but as the election approached, it became clear that Rouhani was a bit more liberal than the others. So Iranians had a choice: Mr. Black, Mr. Black, Mr. Black, Mr. Black, Mr. Black or Mr. Gray. And guess what happened?
On June 14, Mr. Gray, Hasan Rouhani, won by a landslide, garnering nearly 51 percent of the votes, with the second-place finisher, the mayor of Tehran, getting about 16 percent. Clearly, many Iranians are fed up and used the sliver of openness they had to stampede toward the most liberal candidate. Again, Iranians have now had enough democracy to know they want more of it, and they’ve had enough Islamic ideology and sanctions to know they want less of them.
I am not alone in that view. The Iranian rial, which had lost some two-thirds of its value in the past two years of sanctions, shot up after Rouhani’s election, and Iran’s stock exchange rose 7 percent, on hopes that the new president would negotiate a nuclear deal to end the sanctions. In a country with rampant unemployment and nearly 30 percent inflation, is this any surprise?
No, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not allow Rouhani to run and win and start negotiations by accident. The power struggle in Iran is no longer just between the Revolutionary Guards, with their vast business network and illegal ports that they use to break the sanctions and enrich themselves, and the more pragmatic clerics. The Iranian silent majority is now empowered and is in this story, and Rouhani’s charm offensive was dictated as much by them as by the supreme leader.
I had a chat with Rouhani’s very sharp chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, and asked about his background. He is an economist, earned his Ph.D. at George Washington University, and recently led the Iran Chamber of Commerce and Iran’s negotiating team to join the World Trade Organization. He’s Rouhani’s closest aide. Interesting.
To put it another way, Rouhani is here because Iran’s regime is both overextended and underintegrated.
Ten years ago, America was overextended in the Middle East — mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and vulnerable to covert attacks by Iran and its allies. Today, Iran’s regime is overextended, expending men and money and energy every day to keep the Syrian regime alive, Hezbollah on its feet in Lebanon and its allies fortified in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the regime is overextended, Iranians under age 30 — some 60 percent of the population — feel underintegrated with the rest of the world. They want to be able to study, work and travel in — and listen to music, read books and watch films from — the rest of the world. That means lifting sanctions.
The fact that Rouhani could not shake Obama’s hand (they did speak by phone, in the end) because he feared a photo-op would be used against him by hard-line Revolutionary Guards back home — before he had gains to show for it — tells us how hard it will be to reach the only kind of nuclear deal Obama can sign on to. That is one that affirms Iran’s right to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power, but with a nuclear enrichment infrastructure small enough, and international oversight and safeguards stringent enough, that a quick breakout to a bomb would be impossible.
Geopolitics is all about leverage: who’s got it and who doesn’t. Today, the negotiating table is tilted our way. That is to Obama’s credit. We should offer Iranians a deal that accedes to their desire for civilian nuclear power and thus affirms their scientific prowess — remember that Iran’s 1979 revolution was as much a nationalist rebellion against a regime installed by the West as a religious revolution, so having a nuclear program has broad nationalist appeal there — while insisting on a foolproof inspection regime. We can accept that deal, but can they? I don’t know. But if we put it on the table and make it public, so the Iranian people also get a vote — not just the pragmatists and hard-liners in the regime — you’ll see some real politics break out there, and it won’t merely be about the quality of Iran’s nuclear program but about the quality of life in Iran.