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Hassan Rouhani's Iranian Nuclear Balancing Act

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet meet with Ayatollah Khamenei. Photo: Khamenei.ir

[Links point to resources in Persian, unless otherwise noted]

When I was a boy of around ten living in Tehran, my dad had a young student who was an interesting character to me. He devoured any book or magazine he could get his hands on and was always offering scattered general information on random topics, from the history of the croissant to how carburetors worked.

Although the student was nearly in his 30s, he had no formal education, no professional skills and no job, just living from day to day at his parents’ house. As my dad despairingly referred to him one day: “Talented guy, but it’s a shame he’s wide as an ocean but deep as a puddle.”

Hopefully that is not the case with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. It is much more desirable for Rouhani to have only one skill, but one he is great at, unlike his two predecessors, who only managed to add to the long list of Iran’s unfinished and abandoned projects. And this skill might just be one of balancing between Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the United States, as we saw during Rouhani’s recent trip to New York.

Rouhani’s second trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly ended without any substantial progress in the comprehensive negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, a decade-old negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 countries, to which Rouhani refers as negotiations mainly with “kadkhoda” (Persian for “chief of the village”), as he has dubbed the United States on account of its dominance within the group. The trip, however, did offer some insight into what Rouhani’s strategy would be as the November 24th deadline for reaching a final nuclear deal draws near.

While generally in favor of reaching an agreement on the nuclear program, Rouhani has refused to acknowledge any human rights violations in Iran. His firm defense of the Iranian judiciary, which was praised by the latter's head, Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani, was surprising to some of his supporters and criticized by the Islamic Republic’s pro-democracy opposition. But despite its unpopularity, this stance could be taken as a sign of Rouhani’s pragmatic approach and his firm commitment to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Resolving the nuclear crisis was in fact the cornerstone of his presidential campaign, and has been the highest priority in his administration from day one.

As expected, most reporters questioning Rouhani in New York were concerned about the nuclear negotiations and the recent security issues in the Middle East. But unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was not Rouhani’s responses to the foreign policy questions that generated the most controversy, but rather his answers to a handful of questions about recent arrests in Iran.

Rouhani either avoided the questions, or placed responsibility for these crackdowns on the nation’s judiciary and other non-elected officials—or in some cases outright defended them. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he denied that journalists such as Jason Rezaian had been persecuted because of their profession. Nor did he admit that 91 lashes and six months to a year in prison for participants in the Iranian version of Pharrel’s “Happy” music video was a disproportionately heavy punishment.

Although these positions seem disappointing for freedom of expression in Iran, they could perhaps be justified by Rouhani’s strategy of mediating between the non-elected religious leadership of Iran and the West to solve the nuclear crisis. This is part and parcel of Rouhani’s understanding of the complex interplay of powers in Iran and how to retain their support in the fragile process of negotiations. This strategy is not specific to his New York trip, it has been visible over the past few months in his administration’s increasingly reconciliatory approach towards the religious conservative opposition. It is a sign of a true realist pragmatist approach to gaining internal support for solving the country's most substantial threat: sanctions.

After the reformists’ lack of success in the 2009 elections, severe recession and intensified economic sanctions ratified by the UN Security Council turned the 2013 elections into a virtual referendum on the Iranian regime's nuclear negotiations strategy. Hence Rouhani’s victory sent a clear message to the regime: mend relations with the West, and avoid more hostility.

It is important to point out that the Iranians didn't elect Rouhani only as the former chief nuclear negotiator to bargain with the West. Rather, they elected him to play the role of mediator between the two real power holders in this crisis: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the United States. As the trusted channel for communication between the two parties, Rouhani’s conservative position on Iran's human rights issues in New York becomes explicable. A mediator should always maintain the trust of both negotiating parties, otherwise there would be little chance of achieving anything. This is why he does not escalate tensions with institutions such as the Iranian judiciary, even when they publicly criticize his cultural, social and internal policies, because these are bodies often appointed by or closely tied to Ayatollah Khamenei. Any internal tensions in Iran in this last chapter of negotiations before November 24th could potentially derail the entire process.

In fact, the biggest mistake Rouhani could make is to give up his influence and credibility within the nation’s unelected powerhouses in favor of prestige and public support from the Iranian opposition in the next two months. This would alienate the powerful religious elements in the regime.

In the past few months, Rouhani’s administration has had a number of major conflicts with the Parliament and other Principlist political institutions and groups. The sources of these conflicts: the appointment of reformists in the Ministries of Science and Culture; the refusal to strongly enforce the Islamic dress code (hijab); the keeping of certain communications platforms and mobile apps such as Viber and WhatsApp open; the unveiling of corruption within the Ahmadinejad administration; and most importantly, his efforts to reconcile and engage with the West, especially in nuclear talks.

As Rouhani’s most pressing agenda, nuclear negotiations cannot be trampled by clashes with his domestic opponents. On the contrary, some compromise on conservative social, political and cultural demands can strengthen his hand in these sensitive negotiations in the next couple of months. It is important to consider that Rouhani came to power on the strength of the promise to create an opening in the nuclear talks. It is not only in Iran’s national interest to lift the economic sanctions—the future of Rouhani’s administration and political moderation in Iran depends on it.

In the weeks leading up to the UN General Assembly and in the days following his return to Tehran, Rouhani’s administration has attempted to absorb and build confidence amongst the regime’s political elite by rescinding his reformist policies. There is a long list of these instances, including when Rouhani and Mohammad Baqer Nobakht (the administration’s spokesperson) referred to the violation of the hijab dress code as a disease; when the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s assumed pro-censorship positions on the film industry; the removal of reformist senior managers in the Ministry of Science; the delay in the scheduled Internet bandwidth increase; the formation of a committee to forge closer ties with the top Shia clerics; and abandoning any attempt to release the political dissidents Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.

It is Rouhani’s realist-pragmatist approach to politics that has enabled him to be at the helm of politics at one of the most sensitive moments in Iran's recent history. He was one of the few moderate politicians that refused to side with protesters in 2009, after millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest against the alleged election fraud that reinstated Ahmadinejad as President. His silence on that matter gained him the green light from Ayatollah Khamenei to run in last year’s elections. Perhaps another conservative gesture by Rouhani can unlock the much more complicated nuclear impasse and entrench him as the leader uniquely skilled at one thing—mediating between Khamenei and the United States.

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