The Debate

How the West Should Respond to Rouhani’s Inauguration

The P5+1 should view the change of power as an opportunity, and put more on the table.

By Sven-Eric Fikensche for

Earlier this month, Hassan Rouhani, who won the Iranian presidential election in June, securing more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, was sworn in as Iran’s President. For the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) currently negotiating with Iran about placing verifiable limits on its nuclear program, the inauguration of Rouhani should be seen as the closest thing to a “window of opportunity” in the ongoing diplomatic efforts one could reasonably hope for.

Unlike the other candidates in the presidential election, Rouhani has shown some willingness to compromise on the nuclear issue. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, Rouhani was behind the landmark agreements on voluntarily suspending uranium enrichment and allowing more intrusive international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. After rocky negotiations on how to proceed, both conciliatory steps were undone in August 2005 just days before Rouhani was replaced as chief nuclear negotiator after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president.

However, these developments should be viewed with some caution, as they were largely a result of the regional power constellation. Shortly before Iran agreed to suspend enrichment in 2003, the United States and Great Britain had invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power, prompting the leadership in Tehran to think about their own political survival. Under different circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Rouhani and then-President Mohammad Khatami would have been so conciliatory in the nuclear negotiations and won the Supreme Leader’s approval for their policy. A comparable sea change development causing Tehran to make similar overtures cannot be expected for the foreseeable future. Rouhani himself has already ruled out the possibility of  suspending enrichment again.

What is more, in the Iranian political system the president is not necessarily in a position to steer the country’s foreign policy. All of his actions can be blocked by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and Khamenei decide to do so if he believes that Rouhani is too “weak” on the nuclear issue. The two leaders reportedly had their differences shortly before Rouhani’s tenure as nuclear envoy came to an end.

In any event, the election of Rouhani still presents the best opportunity to advance the negotiations on the nuclear issue for the time being. By running on his ability to engage with the West and win sanctions relief, allowing the Iranian economy to prosper, Rouhani put himself under pressure to deliver. Furthermore, the nuclear issue was center stage in the presidential campaign and the people overwhelmingly supported one of the candidates who challenged the current policy. The Supreme Leader therefore might feel domestic pressure to acquiesce to a deal with the P5+1.

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In view of these developments the P5+1 should try to seize the momentum and offer meaningful measures of (temporary) economic relief in exchange for Iran agreeing to suspend enrichment activities beyond the five percent level, and either shipping the uranium already enriched to higher levels abroad or blend it back down to the five percent enriched level. Those demands were part and parcel of the last round of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, but what the P5+1 put on the table in terms of sanctions relief was limited to trading gold, metals, and petrochemicals; steps that do not promise to boost the Iranian economy.

A more encompassing offer could be based on easing the restrictions on Iran’s troubled financial sector (inflation has skyrocketed under Western sanctions) and the promise of easing restrictions on the import of gasoline. Such an offer would allow for quick economic improvements while holding out some additional future benefits, such as oil exports, which may be just enough to win Rouhani’s support.

Moreover, such a deal, if it wins the support of a new and popular president would be difficult for the Supreme Leader to reject. With time and a series of cooperative steps, the two sides may be able to approach a more comprehensive resolution of their differences.  

At the same time, if Iran rejects a more generous offer, the United States would be well positioned to organize even tougher international sanctions; a tool Washington should use if Tehran shows no interest at all in a reasonable deal.

Sven-Eric Fikenscher is a Research Fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.