The election of Hassan Rouhani to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran can only be regarded as good news, as he is a substantial figure in Iranian politics who has declared an intention to steer Iran towards a more moderate position in the world and to seek to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States, which were cut during the 1979 siege of the US Embassy in Tehran.
This presents the United States with an opportunity to normalise its relationship with Iran, an opportunity which, sadly, I expect the United States will hasten to squander. The principal reasons for this bleak prophesy are:
(1) I believe that the Americans have painted themselves into a corner on the Iranian nuclear program and that that there is an irreconcilable gap between the US and Iran on this matter no matter who is in power in Tehran (and we need to remember that it is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is in power – Iranian Presidents have rather limited powers). For reasons set out in my 2009 post Iran position on nuclear deal no surprise, Iran will not agree to any proposal which accords it a status that is inferior to that of other nations, and has absolutely no reason to trust the West on the matter of access to nuclear technology and supplies. The US is making demands that no Iranian Government can agree to, its attitude to “negotiations” throughout the process has been that they are an opportunity for Iran to come to the table and agree to do exactly as it is told, and it has left itself no wriggle room.
(2) The US, having now imposed the “crippling sanctions” so desired by Hillary Clinton throughout her term as Secretary of State, will find it very difficult to remove them. In order to remove them President Obama will need to go to Congress. No matter what deal may be hammered out between US and Iranian negotiators the Republicans in Congress will say it is not enough and that Obama is being “weak” on America’s national security and the security interests of Israel. For his part, President Obama will not use any of his political capital with Congress on behalf of the Iranians. I always thought that sanctions were a dumb idea, for reasons set out in Iran: Sanctions are in the air and Iran: sanctions still on the agenda).
(3) Claims that Iran is not doing enough and is only playing for time while it develops a nuclear weapons option will be backed very vociferously by Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
(4) Iran sees itself (rightly) as a key player in the region, and must be brought to the table in the settlement of the Israel-Palestine mess and now even more so any possible solution in Syria. But I see no sign that the US is prepared to acknowledge that Iran has any legitimate interests outside its own borders, or to enlist Iranian help in solving regional problems – see for example the US attitude to offers of Iranian assistance in dealing with the Taliban in Western Afghanistan immediately after the invasion).
It is not as though there aren’t voices calling for something different: see for example Golnaz Esfandiari’s recent interviews with Vali Nasr and Ryan Crocker. But the third leg of that trifecta is Dennis Ross, with his arrogant commentary about what Iran must and must not be “allowed” to do, and I fear his views will prevail in Washington.
For a think-piece post by me on the Iranian nuclear issue see What should we make of Iran's nuclear program? (November 2011), and for a contemporary view by the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Commission under the Shah, see Akbar Etemad on the Iranian nuclear program.
As former President Dr Mohammad Khatami is one of Rouhani’s supporters, my notes on his Friday 27 March 2009 address to the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs makes interesting reading – see Dr Khatami at AIIA Victoria.