Rowhani needs willing foreign partners

Dina Esfandiary

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Iran's new president, Hassan Rowhani, was sworn in last Sunday. To slogans of 'Ahmadi Bye-Bye', President Ahmadinejad stepped down, leaving Rowhani with a country in turmoil.

The new president now faces a daunting task: to address the country's key political and economic problems, to deliver on his promise of change and to re-evaluate Iran's relations with its neighbors and the West, while having limited room for maneuver and facing staunch opposition from Iran's conservatives. Can he deliver?

The Iranian political system is complicated. It is characterized by dynamism. It is not cohesive or uniform, and represents a multiplicity of views. It is not a one-man show – the Supreme Leader is the ultimate decision-maker but not the sole decision-maker. Ruling by consensus is the name of the game. This explains the long-term stability of a system that has made many mistakes.

The hierarchy

Constitutionally, the Iranian president has little power. Rowhani will be responsible for helping the Iranian economy. But like past presidents, he may be able to influence the mood and direction the country is taking. More importantly, his position as a long-time insider will allow him to play the political game more effectively, while his good relationship with the Supreme Leader may mean that he will be able to sway Ayatollah Khamenei's views on certain issues.

Rowhani's inauguration is cause for cautious optimism, but this will not lead to much if the international community is unable to respond to the opportunity his presidency represents.

Dina Esfandiary

There are two factors to consider: Rowhani's willingness and his ability to bring about change. Mohammad Khatami, Iran's former reformist president, was willing but unable to change anything — his hands were tied by Iran's hardliners. Under Rowhani it is likely that there will be change, but it will be moderate change without risk.

What will this mean for Iran's foreign policy?

Foreign policy is not the president's responsibility. It is controlled by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. But Rowhani may be able to exert some influence. He has a good understanding of foreign policy, both because of his experience as Iran's nuclear negotiator and as the head of the Center for Strategic Research, a prolific Iranian think tank.

Rowhani's presidency could present an opportunity to re-examine the drivers of Iranian foreign policy. The traditional ideological driver of 'resistance' towards the West, represented by presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, was hugely unpopular in the elections. Rowhani has already spoken about 'reducing tensions', trying to mend relations with countries like Saudi Arabia and 'winning back trust'. His inauguration speech was delivered in a conciliatory tone, emphasizing moderation, transparency and fairness in talks with the West. By choosing Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister, he made good on his promise to 'deliver a competent government'.

Iranian policy

Yet it is unlikely that Iran's grand goals for the region will change. Its existing foreign-policy principles are fairly entrenched. Rowhani also indicated that he will not deviate from current Iranian policy on certain regional issues, Syria in particular. Iran has invested too much in Syria and is using the crisis to demonstrate the power of its proxies. Rowhani will emphasize Iran's central role in finding a solution for Syria.

The real opportunity lies in the nuclear negotiations with the West. Rowhani's stance on the nuclear issue has led to optimism in the West, with the United States stating that it would be a 'willing partner' if Iran 'engages seriously'. In a press conference in mid-June, Rowhani pledged greater transparency. He understands the give-and-take needed to hold purposeful talks, and is adept at the game of rhetoric: in October 2003, he agreed to a partial suspension of the enrichment program, while bragging to domestic audiences that suspension was a tactical ploy to enable the nuclear program to advance in other ways. This allowed him to silence his hardline critics, who were accusing him of selling Iran out.

For talks to succeed there will need to be decisive leadership on both sides. But Rowhani will need someone from the outside to confirm that Iran has an international partner and a reason to make concessions. If faced with inertia or a blind insistence on increasing sanctions, then hardliners will discredit him and Iran will revert back to a policy of resistance.

Rowhani's inauguration is cause for cautious optimism, but this will not lead to much if the international community is unable to respond to the opportunity his presidency represents.

This article was first published in The Interpreter, for the Lowy Institute for International Policy.


Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate at the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Program at the IISS. Her responsibilities include research and analysis on non-proliferation and general security in the Middle East, including but not limited to, Iran’s nuclear program and internal security and Syria’s WMD programs. Prior to joining the IISS, she worked at a disarmament NGO focusing on getting non-State actors to comply with international agreements, and at the U.N. Dina graduated from Kings College London in 2008 with a Masters degree in Intelligence and International Security. She also holds a Masters degree in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.

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