With Syria peace talks on hold, and John Kerry’s efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations uncertain, the most positive development to emerge from the Middle East this summer may be the surprise election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president.
Even as Washington takes a cautious, wait-and-see attitude to prospects for a nuclear deal under the more moderate Rowhani, American policymakers say his election victory against more hard-line rivals is a sign that President Obama’s policy of diplomacy plus sanctions is working. The question now is how best to seize the diplomatic opening Rowhani’s election presents to advance prospects for a nuclear deal, given the history of deep mistrust and hostility that has plagued Iranian-US relations for over three decades.
According to a senior American administration offical who provided a background briefing in mid-July to a small group of journalists, the part that sanctions played during the presidential campaign — and particularly the public debates — offered proof that, “sanctions do matter, and played a significant role” in Iranians voting for Rowhani.
Rowhani, 64, a cleric and lawyer, served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator under the more moderate Iranian presidency of Mohammad Khatami, during which time Iran suspended its uranium enrichment from 2004 to 2005. Running on a campaign slogan of prudence and moderation, Rowhani pledged to try to ease Iran’s standoff with the international community and to improve the country’s sanctions-strained economy. Among the candidates he defeated was Iran’s outgoing nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a hard-liner who ran on a campaign of “resistance” against Western economic pressure over Iran’s nuclear program.
As a journalist who has covered the past two years of international nuclear negotiations with Iran in far-flung locales — Kazakhstan, Baghdad, Moscow, Turkey — and sat through many of Jalili’s tedious press conferences where no progress in closing the gaps between the two sides was made, I found myself idly hoping only that Jalili would not win the election. I did not begin to hope that Rowhani, the most moderate of the eight candidates permitted by Iran’s Guardian Council to run, would win, and be permitted to win. Rowhani’s words since his election victory have also given hope that a diplomatic resolution may be found to one of the most pressing security challenges the United States and its ally Israel face in the coming year.
At a press conference after his election victory in June, Rowhani said that Iran would not give up enrichment for the country’s energy program, but he also said he was prepared to find other ways to address the international community’s concerns that Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons..
“Our nuclear program is transparent, but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” Rowhani said at the June 17 press conference.