One of the most controversial geopolitical and geostrategic issues in today’s international and regional affairs is Iran’s nuclear defiance towards the international community and its tensions with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tehran’s crippling economy, four rounds of economic and political sanctions, high inflation, significant unemployment rate, and regional and international isolation are all directly and indirectly linked to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The next president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who in less than two months will replace the provocative and inflammatory President Ahmadinejad, will have to confront all these issues.
The major question raised asks whether Hassan Rowhani, as a moderate, will halt Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, speculation also concerns whether Iran’s newest president will suspend Tehran’s nuclear enrichment in various strategic cities such as Arak, Natanz, Isfahan, and Bushehr.
The diplomatic sheikh
The widespread belief is that since Rowhani is a reformist and well-known for his political initiatives as the “diplomatic sheikh,” he will bring about a change to Tehran’s nuclear defiance and will halt Iran’s nuclear program – or at least agree to suspend it. Moreover, it is also argued, and asserted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, that Rowhani will support a proposal to send Iran’s twenty percent enriched uranium abroad so that it can be transformed into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.
Hassan Rouhani was elected he declared that the United States must recognize Iran’s nuclear rightsMajid Rafizadeh
However, it is crucial to pay a closer analysis to Rouhani’s political ideology and stance within the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hassan Rowhani, who during Iran’s three televised national debates attempted to project himself as a reformist to win votes, is in actuality from the centrist political camp. Iran’s centrist political camp has always attempted to juggle ties with both the hardliners – including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and the reformists. For example, Rowhani has had close political and personal connections with Ayatollah Khamenei as well as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a political figure perceived as a rival to the supreme leader. Rowhani served for twenty-two years on the Expediency Council; an advisory body long chaired by Rafsanjani, and also serves as a member of the Supreme National Security Council, where he served as Ayatollah Khamenei’s personally appointed representative. He is also a member of the Assembly of Experts; a political body with close ties to the supreme leader.
Primarily, Iran’s centrist ideology supports using softer and more diplomatic tones on regional and international platforms. Nevertheless, and more fundamentally, the centrists strongly insist on pursuing Tehran’s current political status quo, foreign policy objectives, and continued assistance towards the survival of the Shiite cleric-ruled regime. While Rowhani is nicknamed the diplomatic sheikh and while he calls for applying less hostile language when dealing with the West, it is nevertheless unrealistic to argue that Rowhani will alter Tehran’s nuclear program and foreign policies or challenge the supreme leader.
The most concrete evidence supporting this argument is Rowhani’s recent writings and interviews in the Persian language. In a recent interview, Hassan Abedini, the host of one of Iran’s state media channels, IRIB, said that Iran’s nuclear work had been halted as a result of the negotiations that Rowhani took part in. Rowhani then immediately interrupted Abedini by exclaiming: “What you said is a lie. You know it’s a lie. This statement is what ignorant people say; you are taught in this….Maybe the person speaking to you in your earpiece doesn’t know, but you know.” After Iran’s state media host pressured Rowhani further, Rowhani said “we suspended the [nuclear] program? We completed the [nuclear] program. This is unethical act of the IRIB [channel] that has permeated into you. And the person who is talking with you into your earpiece, this unethical act has permeated into him, as well.”
In this interview, Rouhani supported his position that although the West and international community believe that Iran was halting its nuclear program, Rowhani – as the chief nuclear negotiator – was in fact further completing the program to achieve nuclear capabilities. In addition, at the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, Rouhani made clear his position on Iran’s nuclear program: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were [simultaneously] installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear] facility in Isfahan, but we still had a long way to go to accomplish the project. In fact, by creating a tranquil environment, we were able to finfish the work in Isfahan.”
Furthermore, after Hassan Rouhani was elected as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s seventh president, he declared that the United States must recognize Iran’s nuclear rights and pledge not to interfere in its internal and domestic affairs. Additionally, in his press conference, the president-elect clearly stated, “the era of [enrichment] suspension is gone.”
Therefore, the major question actually surrounds what the political and ideological differences between Rowhani and Ahmadinejad will be regarding Iran’s nuclear program. On one hand, Rowhani will attempt to display on-the-surface semblance of “transparency,” “openness,” “dialogue,” and “communication” with the West. On the other hand however, Rowhani will also employ policies that will ensure the survival of the Shiite regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a veteran politician and the regime insider who has proven his loyalty to the supreme leader and the ruling clerics, Rowhani will continue Tehran’s domestic and foreign policies geared towards Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities. This is due to the fact that the regime and its beneficiaries, including Rowhani, strongly believe that nuclear weapons can serve as a strong deterrent to any foreign intervention in Iran, a powerful tool for the survival of the current clerical establishment, and can also serve as leverage for continuing regional hegemonic ambitions and tipping the balance of power in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.
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