It’s all bad — the Egyptian coup-by-another-name, the Syrian rebels turning their guns on each other, the ongoing Libyan anarchy. Isn’t there any good news in the Middle East these days? Why, yes: Hassan Rouhani will be sworn in as the president of Iran on Aug. 4. I know Rouhani is arm candy for the grim theocrats who run the show over there. But that’s not all he is. Iran’s next president is a pragmatic figure of moderate temperament who admonished a crowd of clerics in a publicly televised meeting last week that “government’s involvement in the social and private lives of people should diminish.” And let’s remember that Rouhani was the chief nuclear negotiator when Iran agreed in 2004 to temporarily suspend its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for modest economic benefits. Rouhani’s accession to power just might be good for Iran, and good for the West.
Iran has, of course, a special gift for disappointing expectations. Indeed, the leitmotif of “The Twilight War,” David Crist’s history of U.S.-Iranian relations since the revolution, is fresh surprise in Washington each time Tehran chooses hostility and disruption over what would appear to be rational self-interest. So first, let’s list the caveats.
As the Iranian press itself has pointed out, Rouhani is a deep member of the establishment, not a “reformist,” much less a radical. And on matters which the United States cares about, above all on the nuclear file, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who makes the supreme decisions. And yes, we’ve seen this movie before. In 1997, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who had publicly expressed regret for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, was elected president, the Clinton administration engaged in an elaborate, if largely secret, courtship ritual, including secret messages passed to intermediaries offering improved relations and a speech by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologizing for past support of the Shah of Iran. The result? Ayatollah Khamenei thundered, “The confessions of American crimes are of no use to the Iranian nation.” The relationship just got worse.
So why should it be any different now? First, precisely because Rouhani, unlike Khatami, is an insider and an apparatchik. He knows the red lines, and has shown a penchant for pushing them ever so slightly. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has done the world the inestimable service of reading Rouhani’s 860-page Farsi-language book National Security and Iran’s Economic System. Clawson points out the remarkable fact that, while conceding that the Supreme Leader opposed the deal, Rouhani nevertheless credits the pact with advancing Iran’s effort to join the World Trade Organization, keeping the issue out of the U.N. Security Council, allowing nuclear technicians to continue upgrading facilities. Clawson argues that Iran could reach a deal today if — a big if — it is prepared to adopt a similar approach.
Is it? The fact that Khamenei allowed Rouhani to run (and win) could mean that the supreme leader and other members of the Iranian elite recognize that they are threatened by the deep alienation of ordinary citizens, and must improve an economy beset by rampant inflation and unemployment. And those problems aren’t going to get better unless and until Iran can convince the West to lift the sanctions imposed on the country’s nuclear program. Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings, compares the sense of domestic crisis to 1988, when the Ayatollah Khomeini installed the pragmatic Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president in order to finally bring the war with Iraq to an end.