We don’t know yet whether Hasan Rouhani, the surprise winner of Iran’s presidential election, will turn out to be a reformer or just another frontman for the clerical establishment. He won’t even be inaugurated until Aug. 4.
In his postelection news conference last month, Rouhani said all the right things. Iran needs “moderation,” not extremism, he said. It’s time to “repair the wound” of Iran’s bitter history with the United States. He added that Iran is ready and willing to make its nuclear program “more transparent” than it is today.
But Rouhani is no democrat. He has worked directly for the uncompromising supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for decades. And if there is to be a nuclear deal, it will be Khamenei who counts, not Rouhani.
Still, it’s in the interest of the United States – and everyone else – to give Rouhani a chance. It’s just possible that after years of increasingly harsh economic sanctions, even Khamenei is willing to consider a compromise. After all, that’s what Rouhani campaigned for – and Khamenei, who disqualified other candidates, allowed him to win.
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So here are four things President Obama can do to make it easier for Rouhani to agree to a deal:
• Maintain the economic sanctions that are in place, but stop Congress from imposing new ones. Obama and his aides believe the sanctions helped Rouhani win the election. But the House of Representatives is considering a new sanctions law that would effectively place an embargo on Iran’s remaining oil exports; that would look to many Iranians like an attempt to undermine Rouhani and could alienate other countries that have supported sanctions as well.
• Sweeten the interim nuclear deal that’s on the table. In February, the United States and its allies offered to lift a few minor sanctions if Iran stopped enriching uranium to the 20 percent level necessary for nuclear weapons. The Iranians said they would consider suspending enrichment, but only if all sanctions came off. There might be a deal in the middle.
• Propose a bigger, more comprehensive bargain in addition to the interim deal that’s on the table.
• Renew U.S. offers for direct one-on-one talks with Iran – in secret, if the Iranians insist.
Obama and his aides have said they won’t make any pre-emptive concessions to bring Iran back to the table. But Obama already has signaled that he wants to test Rouhani as quickly as possible. Nuclear negotiators for the United States, Russia, China and the European Union plan to meet in Brussels this month and invite Iran to another round of negotiations as soon as the Rouhani administration is up and running. They’ll be looking for another early signal of the Iranian president’s intentions: whether he replaces Iran’s hard-line nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
One of Rouhani’s main campaign promises was to try to resolve the nuclear standoff with the West. As a charter member of the clerical establishment, he can cast himself as a pragmatist trying to stabilize the Islamic regime, not bring it down – and that, paradoxically, may make him more likely to succeed than a genuine reformist would be.
If the Obama administration wants to give Rouhani a chance to succeed, it doesn’t need to lift sanctions prematurely or give away the store. But it does need to aim for a “win-win” outcome.