Iran Comes to America to Bargain

Along with the leaves changing color and the return of football, it became a rite of fall for former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to arrive in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly’s gathering and toss rhetorical firebombs in all directions. He might deny the Holocaust, call for Israel to be wiped off the map of the Middle East, or insist that there are no homosexuals in Iran. With the surprise election of his successor in August—the sleeper candidate Hassan Rouhani, considered a relative moderate among the Islamic Republic’s clerical elite—Iran will present a different face to the world at next week’s General Assembly. A reported exchange of letters between President Obama and Rouhani has even raised the possibility of a meeting in New York that would be the first face-to-face encounter between U.S. and Iranian presidents since Iran’s 1979 revolution. To better understand a potentially historic moment in U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, I spoke with Suzanne Maloney, a former senior State Department official who is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the author of the recent essay “Iran Surprises Itself and the World: A New President May Take His Country in a New Direction.” Edited excerpts follow.

Do you think President Rouhani is determined to cultivate a new image for Iran on the world stage, beginning at the General Assembly next week?

Maloney: Absolutely. Both domestically and internationally, Rouhani has postured himself as the anti-Ahmadinejad, and he has been very critical of his predecessor. He has very much presented himself as someone who will not be divisive in terms of domestic politics, and as someone who will represent Iran in a more moderate and reasonable fashion in dealing with the rest of the world. Just since he was inaugurated in August, he has made a concerted effort to present a new Iranian face to the world.

In what way?

Maloney: Well, there has been a lot of publicity in recent weeks surrounding his use of social media, and his operating Twitter accounts in both Persian and English. Rouhani even tweeted a Rosh Hashanah greeting to the Jewish people recently. His handpicked foreign minister, Javad Zarif, did the same, and when Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine tweeted back that it would mean more if not for Iran’s Holocaust denial, Zarif tweeted that he never denied the Holocaust, and the man who did is now gone, so Happy New Year. Now, admittedly, that is mostly atmospherics. As we learned from Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president, however, atmospherics matter intensely both in Iran’s domestic politics and in its international relations.

As you point out in your essay, Iran has seen reformers and liberalizing political movements rise to the fore before, most notably in 1997 when the moderate Mohammad Khatami was elected president, and again in 2009 when millions of Iranians protested after an anticipated victory by a moderate candidate was nullified by a fraudulent election. Why are we now seeing the election of another relative moderate in Hassan Rouhani?

Maloney: Iran is a very internally divided country, with fissures between the ruling regime and the population, and among the ruling elites themselves. As a result of the baby boom that occurred early in the revolution, when Iran had one of the highest birth rates in the world, you now have a disproportionately young citizenry in which two-thirds of the population is below the age of 30. As a result of Iran’s universal education policies, those young people are very educated, literate, and socially mobile.

Because of social-media technologies, they are also well aware of the world around them. So those young people feel frustrated by Iran’s international isolation, by their inability to travel or communicate freely, and especially by a lack of jobs in a terrible economy. Over the past decade, Iran’s oil revenues skyrocketed, and yet there has been no trickle-down effect, and already-high un­employment and inflation rates have reached epic levels over the last three years because of very severe international sanctions on the regime. All of those factors have created great tensions in Iranian society.

Why do you argue that the election campaign, which for the first time included televised debates among the candidates on once-taboo subjects such as Iran’s nuclear program, “betrays the regime’s awareness of its increasing vulnerability”?

The regime clearly realizes it is in a very difficult predicament. They look at the instability throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, much of it prompted by young people demanding greater freedoms, and they see that tide of chaos as a clear threat. Iranian elections are not free and fair by any stretch of the imagination. But by the time it became clear that Rouhani was going to run a campaign that adopted many of the slogans and positions of the 2009 opposition Green Movement, the regime recognized it could not risk manipulating the election results again without facing the kind of social upheaval that even Iran’s security forces might have had trouble withstanding.

Yet because he’s a cleric with a history of close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, doesn’t Rouhani’s biography fit more comfortably in the camp of the traditional conservatives?

Maloney: Yes, but I argue that Rouhani has been tapped to effect a turnaround—to stanch a crisis and salvage the revolution from its own failings. He is not a smiling cleric and left-leaning intellectual like the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. He’s more conservative, and quite calculating at playing the political game, which he is also very good at.

As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003, Rouhani famously spearheaded the agreement with the Europeans that suspended Iran’s uranium enrichment, at least for a few years. That was Iran’s most significant concession on the nuclear issue. Is he capable of such a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations today?

Maloney: I don’t think we can expect him to do as president in 2013 exactly what he did as chief negotiator in 2003. That’s partly because Iran’s nuclear program has progressed dramatically in the intervening years, and partly because those earlier concessions were made when the United States had just toppled the Iraqi regime next door and thus had maximum leverage. However, we are much more likely to reach an acceptable deal with Rouhani than with Ahmadinejad, who never seemed able to wrap his head around the damage that international sanctions have inflicted on Iran’s economy.

But won’t Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei still be the final arbiter of any deal?

Maloney: Khamenei is still the ultimate authority who will determine what concessions Iran is prepared to make,and how Iran will position itself in relation to Syria’s civil war, which is fast emerging as an equally precarious issue for the regime. I don’t see any evidence in his recent speeches that Khamenei has fundamentally changed his worldview. However, I don’t think Rouhani could have run the bold campaign he did, or select relative moderates and centrists to key positions, without the Supreme Leader’s tacit blessing.

So a mutually acceptable deal on Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program is achievable?

Maloney: Yes, but the problem remains getting it done. Reaching a deal will require reciprocal concessions and some degree of trust on both sides. The United States wants as many protections as possible to separate Iran from a nuclear-weapons capability, which will require clear constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as transparency so that we can see if Iran starts to backtrack.

For its part, Iran wants its rights un­der the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty legitimized, which means a civilian nuclear program and a fuel cycle that includes some enrichment. Rouhani will also want a signifi­cant relaxation of sanctions. He will argue plausibly that is necessary to buy off hard-liners in the regime. That will be hard, because Iran is under multiple sanctions regimes that limit its access to the global financial system because of both its nuclear program and its support for terrorism. And I don’t yet see any evidence that Iran is willing to curtail its support for Hezbollah.

Read the full interview at


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