Should the US Believe in Iran and Rouhani’s ‘Charm Offensive’?

There are many signs that the new Iranian president has the tacit support of the Supreme Leader
October 14, 2013 Updated: October 14, 2013

WASHINGTON—In the wake of the election of moderate Hassan Rouhani to the presidency of Iran, a flurry of opinions about the prospects for fruitful negotiations with Iran toward ending its military nuclear program have emerged one after another. 

However, we’ve seen this movie before.

Hopes were high for a breakthrough in relations between the United States and Iran when reformer Mohammad Khatami was president, and nothing came of the hopes.

Is there any reason to be more hopeful that this time the regime is committed to negotiate over abandoning its pursuit of a nuclear bomb in exchange for offering relief from the onerous international sanctions wrecking the Iranian economy?

On Oct. 2, two experts provided a candid assessment at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think-tank, of how realistic diplomacy may be after the Sep. 24 United Nations speeches by President Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama. Both speeches indicated a change in tone and a strong desire to forge a breakthrough at the impasse.

Robin Wright, journalist, author, and foreign policy analyst, met with Rouhani twice during the week before the speeches, but Rouhani spoke with her, in part, off the record. Wright also met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Oct. 1. 

Wright said that the current situation between Iran and the United States is “the most positive it’s going to be.”

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Wright described the recent events that culminated in a telephone conversation between Presidents Obama and Rouhani as a “rapprochement” between the United States and Iran that had taken 34 years to achieve—much longer than with Vietnam or China. “The difference in time is quite striking,” she said.

Thawing Relations?

Normal relations between the United States and Iran ended in 1979 after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The recent conversation between Obama and Rouhani was the first direct discussion between an Iranian and U.S. president since the embassy’s take-over in 1979.

Wright said that the decision to call President Obama was that the Rouhani contingent felt that Obama had been “humiliated after he made positive statements at the U.N.” and a handshake with the Mr. Obama was eluded. The Obama administration had let it be known publicly before the UN meetings that President Obama would welcome an encounter, when the two men crossed paths at the UN but the Iranians led by Rouhani were unwilling. The reason given by Iranian observers is that a handshake with the head of a government, sometimes called the Great Satan in Iran, would be premature and severely criticized by the hardliners back home, and thus too risky to do. The phone call in New York from Rouhani to Obama essentially made up for the missing handshake, and it worked out very well.

The second reason was the productive meeting Zarif had with Secretary of State John Kerry in New York.

The thaw in relations has resulted in the Oct. 15-16 meetings in Geneva for talks that aim to “lay a broad framework so they know what the endgame is and take the first step in the process,” Wright said.

The pressure is on Iran to allow more inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, permit examinations of its uranium enriched stockpiles, open up inspections of its underground Fordo nuclear facility, and dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

However, many analysts emphasize the importance of understanding the limitations of the perceived thaw in terms of Iran’s softening in ideological struggles. Some political prisoners were released to boost Rouhani’s status prior to his departure to the UN, but 600 to 800 prisoners of conscience remain, said Meir Javedanfar, Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. Moreover, two presidential candidates from the 2009 election remain under house arrest.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t buying Rouhani’s pitch in his address at the UN. Al-Jazeera reported, “The Israeli leader accused Rouhani of embarking on a ‘charm offensive,’ in which he paid ‘lip service to peace, democracy and tolerance’ in an effort to convince the international community to lift economic sanctions imposed on Iran for its failure to suspend uranium enrichment.”

Netanyahu said that Rouhani may not sound like Ahmadinejad, but when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, he has the same objective.

‘Heroic Flexibility’

“The big question is what the Supreme Leader of Iran [Ali Khamenei] thinks about this initiative,” Wright said. 

The Supreme Leader gave his approval for “heroic flexibility” for pursuing diplomacy. “That was an important signal, and I do believe he is prepared to give it a try,” she said.

When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program and foreign relations, especially with the United States, Rouhani doesn’t run the show, said Javedanfar, co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran.

Javedanfar said that the unelected part of the government—the Supreme Leader and the security apparatus—are backing the initiative. He referes to these powerful behind-the-scenes persons as “the deep state,” and characterizes them as the ones in control—those who falsified the 2009 election enabling Ahmadinejad to win his second election. 

“The deep state” could have disqualified Rouhani, as they did former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but they instead allowed Rouhani to run and win, Javedanfar said.

A case could be made that Rouhani is the most powerful president Iran has ever had, Wright said. Unlike former president Rafsanjani, who was a rival to the Supreme Leader, Rouhani currently holds the support of Khamenei.

‘Glimmer of Hope’

There was a “very important development,” Wright said, in the October 2 letter endorsing Rouhani’s approach that was signed by 230 out of the 290 members of the Iran’s parliament, known as the Majlis

The National Interest noted that “virtually” all Majlis members “are followers of Ayatollah Khamenei, thereby signaling the Supreme Leader’s support for Rouhani’s charm offensive.”

Another positive sign for a progressive Iran was the Oct. 3 announcement by Rouhani signaling negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program being transferred from the National Security Council to the foreign ministry, according to 

Such a move’s significance lies in the fact that the National Security Council answers to the Supreme Leader, while the foreign ministry remains under Rouhani’s influence. 

Considering the effect of international sanctions on Iran’s civilians, the regime’s interest in reaching an accord with the international community is tied to the sanctions. The Epoch Times reported in Oct. 2012 that Iranian oil exports had fallen by more than 1 million barrels per day. 

Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that the loss in oil exports and production costs the regime $3 billion to $5 billion in monthly revenue. 

The most devastating of all is the nearly 80 percent devaluation of the Iranian rial over the last nine months, Vaez said.

As crippling as the sanctions have been, “the young demographic is as important in many ways as the sanctions,” said Wright, noting that 70 percent of the population is post-Revolution. The aging leadership understands the increasing importance of the youth population, who are especially subjected to the county’s high unemployment.

For the leadership, Wright said, the election was a wake-up call: a high voter turnout at 73 percent, and Rouhani receiving over 50 percent of the ballots “in what most people would regard as a legitimate election.”

The cumulative effect of positive signals provide a “glimmer of hope,” Wright said.

Positive Signals

Several signals were sent by the new Iranian president and his foreign minister that led up to the historic phone conversation between him and President Obama.

President Obama acknowledged on an ABC news interview on Sep. 15 that he and Rouhani had exchanged letters. Hopes for a handshake as the two crossed paths at the United Nations, however, failed to materialize. Rouhani called the president from New York, and it’s been reported that they had an amicable conversation to spur the negotiations.

Furthermore, Rouhani and his U.S.-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have tried to distance themselves from Rouhani’s predecessor, the bellicose hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

Before leaving for New York, Housani tweeted well-wishes to Jews on the Jewish New Year. There was also a remarkable exchange between the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Zarif, who wrote, “Iran never denied [the Holocaust]. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.” 

Of course, the man to whom Zarif was referring is Ahmadinejad.

Wright emailed Zarif and asked him if he realized that Christine Pelosi, who had tweeted that his well-wishes would be “sweeter” if he “would end Iran’s Holocaust denial,” was the daughter of “a prominent American politician.” Wright said that in five minutes—whereas it usually takes a day or so for a reply—Zarif emailed her back and said that he was aware who she was.