Last Monday I was fortunate enough to participate in a panel discussion at Westminster, the home of the British parliament, about the Iranian elections that had taken place only few days earlier. It was part of a nascent effort to dissect the unexpected election results. In a very stuffy committee room, packed to capacity with members of parliament, former diplomats and some veteran observers of Iranian affairs, there was an air of optimism mixed with surprise and confusion. When I was invited more than two months ago to take part in this panel discussion it was not yet clear who would even be allowed to run for elections, let alone what the message sent by the Iranian people through the ballot box would be.
The international response to Rowhani’s victory, including the U.S. and the EU, was that of qualified satisfactionYossi Mekelberg
The only consensus before the elections was that no one candidate was expected to win more than half of the votes in the first round, and if there was anyone with a chance to do so it was definitely not the pragmatic candidate Hassan Rowhani. When election results defying conventional wisdom emerged, alternative theories were instantly thrown in the air in an effort to explain Rowhani’s victory. These explanations vary from miscalculation on the part of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council, or conversely that it was their ploy to bring someone of a different ilk after eight very turbulent years of the bellicose presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Maybe they thought it was time for an Iranian president, who would reconcile differences with the international community and heal domestic rifts.
The legacy left for the new president to deal with is arduous both at home and abroad. This situation is compounded in the context of the Iran’s complex political structure whereby the president is not the most powerful political figure, particularly with regards to foreign affairs. Steering a mismanaged economy, which suffers from hyperinflation, high unemployment, and a currency which is in a free fall, together with trying to mend wrecked relationships with large parts of the international community are the immediate tasks left for the new president. What makes it more challenging is that the internal hardships are closely related to the Iranian nuclear project. This program led the international community to impose painful sanctions on Iran, as well as constant threats of military action by Israel and the U.S. in order to stop it altogether.
Ahmadinejad’s handling of public diplomacy was characterized by utter defiance, even contempt for the sensitivities of his enemies, leading him to become an almost one-man casus belli. Rowhani, on the other hand, is sending from the outset a more conciliatory message. He does so without relinquishing what Iran sees as her right to enrich uranium for peaceful civilian purposes. Nevertheless, most observers of the Iranian nuclear program are far from being convinced that the ultimate purpose is not indeed to reach a weapon-grade level of enrichment, followed by the development of full nuclear military capability. Israel and the United States are by far the most vociferous in their opposition to this, but the EU and Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf are not far behind. They fear that Iran’s hegemony in the region will be enhanced if it is armed with nuclear weapons. Rowhani, who was the chief Iranian negotiator on the nuclear issues in the past, suggests that Iran under his presidency will offer more transparency on the issue. In his first press conference after the elections his tone was a far cry from his predecessor, as he called Israel by name instead of referring to her as “the Zionist entity.” He also reiterated the importance of Saudi Arabia for the stability of the Gulf region.
The international response to Rowhani’s victory, including the U.S. and the EU, was that of qualified satisfaction, even if they perceive the elections to be far from free and fair. However, there is recognition of the Iranian people’s clear message of dissatisfaction with the regime in Tehran regarding its handling of the economy and of the nuclear issue; an issue which edges the country ever closer to towards military confrontation. Not surprisingly, though arguably rather disappointingly, the Israeli government was unable to see any positives emerging out of the change in Iran. The security establishment in Israel decided more than a decade ago that the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel, and hence should not be allowed to materialize. One might argue that the Iranian nuclear program, even if it reaches its military stage, is far from being a direct threat to Israel, and is developed more for prestige, or with other strategic challenges in mind. This is not to argue in favor of nuclear proliferation in the region, but accepting that it is a realistic possibility. This is, however, not how it is perceived among the Israeli decision makers. Prime Minster Netanyahu’s redline, outlined in his speech in front of the General Assembly in New York last autumn, left little doubt about his government’s intention to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Despite this, Israel understands that a military attack on Iran is a very complex one, with potentially horrendous consequences for herself and the region, even if it succeeds. Taking military action without American backing would make such an attack almost impossible. Israel believes that a credible threat would incentivize the international community to act swiftly to stop the Iranian nuclear program before Israel acts; something which is generally regarded as the worst case scenario.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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