The Great debate about Iran’s new president

The Great debate about Iran’s new president

Iran’s new president-elect Hassan Rohani is being praised as a “moderate” who might bring change to Iran and transform Tehran’s international relationships. ”What does he want?” is the question most analysts now ask, and, critically, “What can he achieve?”

The answer may be: a great deal. If he is given the right support — domestically and internationally.

For Rohani possesses the single most important qualification for any president in Tehran: He knows how to negotiate the pit of vipers that is Iranian politics.

Rohani has survived for more than 30 years in Tehran. He is the Beria of the Islamic Republic – as able as Laventy Beria to skillfully negotiate the whims of his autocratic masters to safeguard his position at all times.

As a cleric of the Islamic Republic, who followed its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into exile in Paris, Rohani is a true child of the Islamic Revolution. Yet he is also, comparatively speaking, a “moderate.”

His first post-election promises to improve Iran’s image are positive — contrasting starkly to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 arrival to the world stage with an offensively defiant speech at the United Nations.

Whether Rohani will deliver, however, is another matter.

But he has already vowed to release Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, the two reformist leaders held under house arrest since 2011. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is likely loathe to free the men he blames for the unrest that so badly shook the regime in 2009. So this will be Rohani’s first test — of his sincerity and, more importantly, his ability to get things done.

There have already been some positive changes in Tehran since the election. Internet censorship, according to my friends in Iran, has eased somewhat since Saturday. Many long-blocked reformist sites are mysteriously accessible.

Yes, Rohani is only the president. He does not run the country — which is under the tight control of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But anyone who thinks the Iranian president makes no difference should spend some time in Iran.

I was there in 2005. when Ahmadinejad had just taken office — succeeding the more reformist Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad rapidly set about rolling back the freedoms his predecessor had instituted. Newspapers closed down almost daily. My female friends were roughly accosted on the street by state officials unhappy with their revealing veils and overtly Western clothing.

Rohani can make a difference to ordinary Iranians. As president he is in charge of the economy — Iran’s greatest weakness. International sanctions have slashed the country’s oil earnings, and inflation levels are devastating. Tehran needs to alleviate at least some of the economic pressure before it morphs into social unrest.

We could be witnessing that most necessary of things in international politics: good timing. For Rohani’s ascension to power combines with Tehran’s desperate need for sanctions relief.

This coincidence of forces could persuade Khamenei to bend. The supreme leader asserts that the Islamic Republic’s very essence is to stand up the “Western aggressor.” Sanctions are not negotiated, they are “resisted.

But Iran’s leaders have compromised before in the national interest. They may do so again — and Rohani may be the man to do it.

For this to happen, though, he will have to make good on his promise to heal Iran’s international relations — his biggest challenge. Can he do it?

Consider how and why he made the boldest decision of his long political career: to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

He announced this on Oct. 21, 2003 inside Sa’dabad, the shah’s old palace in north Tehran, at a meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain.

It was a fraught time in the nuclear crisis, which had begun in August 2002. when the Iranian opposition group, the MKO, revealed full details of two nuclear plants in Iran and brought the world’s suspicion down on Iran. Washington was then seeking to drag Iran to the Security Council — repeating its actions that led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Rohani was particularly nervous. He had battled hardliners (who objected to negotiations on principle) to arrange the Tehran meeting. Now, inside Sa’dabad, no one could agree on anything.

After almost two hours of fruitless talks, Rohani requested a pause in the negotiations. He used this to make two calls: one to then-President Khatami, and one to the supreme leader’s office.

Iran must suspend enrichment, he told Khatami, or face possible military consequences. Khatami agreed. Rohani then called Khamenei’s office — but could not get hold of his boss. The supreme leader was most likely ducking the call, realizing the danger of the situation but unwilling to personally countenance a suspension.

So Rohani decided to act on his own initiative. When the meeting resumed, he announced he was taking a huge, personal risk, since he had received no instructions on this. But he said he willing to suspend uranium enrichment while negotiations on the overall nuclear file took place.

It remains the biggest diplomatic breakthrough in the history of the nuclear crisis.

The Tehran Agreement resulted, almost entirely, from Rohani’s understanding of the need to compromise, his ability to negotiate with the West and, most critical, his ability to make decisions that he knows are unpalatable to the supreme leader.

If the regime wants to make life easier for itself, then such decisions need to be made once more. Rohani is unlikely to be able to bring democracy to Iran. But he has a chance of lessening its international isolation, and its suffering.

During his presidential campaign, he repeatedly pointed out that on his watch as chief nuclear negotiator (from 2003 to 2005) Iran was never referred to the Security Council and suffered none of the sanctions currently crippling it.

Now, the big question is: Will he be allowed to do so?

Even in desperate economic times it won’t be easy. Khatami promised to bring change to Iran in 1997. He did — but it was temporary and largely cosmetic. Hardliners stifled his efforts to liberalize the Islamic Republic at every turn.

But Rohani is not Khatami — whose only public office before taking office was running Iran’s National Library. Rohani has been a player in the Islamic Republic’s political life since its founding in 1979. Consider that even Ahmadinejad ultimately fell afoul of Khamenei and saw his influence wane dramatically — he will need all his political skills and experience if he is to avoid the same fate.

Rohani’s power is limited, but he can change the tone of Iran’s diplomacy; and, if allowed, he can compromise on the nuclear program.

This time, Khamenei refrained from meddling with the election results. He should now refrain from meddling in Rohani’s attempts to undo the considerable damage of the Ahmadinejad years.

If Khamenei allows him the freedom to negotiate as he sees fit, he may just be able to help make the diplomatic breakthrough the world is waiting for.

*This abridged article is taken from Reuters.