Adapted from Nikolai Bobkin’s article @ journal-neo.org
Tehran was not congratulated by Washington on Rouhani’s victory in the presidential elections, demonstrating that they did not intend to soften their policy towards Iran. This is at best a language of despair and of malintent at worst. In contrast, the Brookings Institution said : “Under the circumstances when the authorities of the USA, China, Russia and European states are preparing for the next steps of the negotiations with Iran, new opportunities arise in connection with the predominantly moderate tendencies in the foreign policy of Tehran.” American politicians quickly appraised the electoral defeat of conservatives in immediate entourage of the head of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, as a motive for changing Washington’s stance towards Tehran. Thus, 118 US Congressmen on both sides of the aisle issued a letter of appeal to President Obama, calling for efforts to start direct negotiations with Iranian authorities. Further, 29 retired high-ranking diplomats and officials wrote to urge the US President into fresh multilateral and bilateral discussions with Iran after President Rouhani assumes charge.
There is cautious optimism in Europe as well about change of guard in Iran. Speaking at the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague stated his nation’s willingness to improve ties with Tehran on step by step basis. London and Tehran have begun reflecting on restoring full functioning of their respective embassies in the other country. Iran made a friendly protocol step and congratulated Queen Elizabeth and Prince William on the birth of an heir to the British throne.
It is not only the British who are willing to make adjustments in the relations with Iran. European economists prove openly and convincingly that their countries are missing out on many opportunities as a result of sanctions initiated by Washington. But American experts are unrelenting; they say, the situation around Iran will not change fundamentally merely because of a new president. Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, currently with American Enterprise Institute, is sure that Rouhani’s election is nothing but a trap that gives America a false sense of security and delays negotiations already on, even while Iran does nothing to halt its nuclear enrochment process. In his view, the difference between the new president and Ahmadinejad is only in the rhetoric; the latter expressed the goals publicly while Rouhani will act without unnecessary declarations. It is recalled, of course, that Rouhani led the Iranian delegation in 2003–2005 at the negotiations table on the nuclear issue. It is reported, he boasted to his Iranian colleagues about the ease with which he had been able to outsmart European diplomats. Allegedly, in 2004, in a speech he gave before Iranian legislators and professors, Rouhani said that Tehran had managed to gain time for its nuclear development.
Now however, Rouhani takes a pragmatic stance : “We will undertake two steps to lift the sanctions. Firstly, we are going to double the transparency of our nuclear programme. Secondly, we intend to build credibility between Iran and the international community.” It must be admitted that this sort of statements by Rouhani have been heard and received seriously. The representative of European Union for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, encourages swift resumption of the negotiation process with the Iran. In Brussels, at non-public consultations of political directors of the “group of six”, participants suggested a turn to new phase in discussions on the Iranian nuclear dossier. The negotiation process, which is on hold since April, will resume after formation of the new government in Iran.
Political analysts though are wary of the US lead in the “group of six.” The US State Department aims at gaining major political concessions from the new Iranian president. They intend to further increase pressure on Tehran, in a bid to test Rouhani’s firmness. After the elections in Iran, the US imposed new sanctions – against Iran’s automotive industry. In the Security Council however, Russia did not accept claims against Iran and blocked imposition of new UN sanctions, alongwith China. Whilst Russia is convinced that the actions of the international community aimed at resolving issues related to Iran’s nuclear programme are undermined by unilateral sanctions, Washington has already threatened President Rouhani with new punitive measures of its own. The main argument is that, in the Islamic Republic, the president does not have the last say in foreign policy matters; it is the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei who holds the right to hammer last.
The US assessment rests on matters of fact. President Rouhani cannot radically reform and change Iran’s strategic policies on his own. He is elected as the head of only the executive branch of the government. The head of state in Iran is the supreme leader who has control over the armed forces, which function independently of the government, as well as over various religious and political oversight bodies, judicial power and the Parliament. Besides, Rouhani is closely linked to the community of religious clerics : he has been a member of the political entourage of the founder of Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. He worked for decades at the side of the current supreme leader, Khamenei, and was his trustee. Their relationship rules out open political confrontation and the very possibility of systemic contradictions between them.
Ayatollah Khamenei brought discussions with US to a stop. He declares, Washington “does not deserve the Islamic Republic’s trust”; that is why there can be yet no talk of establishing diplomatic relations between the two states. Nevertheless, the leader of Iran does not rule out the possibility of a dialogue on certain issues of mutual interest, admitting : “…over the last years, I have not prohibited a dialogue on specific issues such as, for example, on Iraq”. It looks like the Iranian nuclear dossier is not a permissible topic for bilateral discussion. The format of the “group of six”, with participation of Russia and China, suits Tehran. Realising that the Americans cannot afford military aggression, the Iranian leadership follow and will continue to follow their commitment to conducting nuclear research.
The US sanctions, supported by EU, undoubtedly causes serious problems for the Iranian economy. At the same time, it should be admitted that they are not the only reason for Iran’s economic downturn, which in part is also the result of some not very successful experiments of the previous government. As of now, the steering wheel of the country’s strategic course remains with the supreme leader of Iran.
Nikolai Bobkin is an expert on the Near and Middle East security, candidate of military sciences, docent.
This article was written exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.