How Will Washington Respond to the Iranian People’s Aspirations?

Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, was elected Iran’s president in a landslide on June 14, 2013. Much has been said about him and his past, and what his election means for Iran, its nuclear program and the standoff with the West over the program, and the future of the Middle East. The War party in the United States and its Israel lobby ally have already panicked over the emergence of a moderate, soft-spoken Iranian President that is an expert on the nuclear issues, was deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program for two decades, and promised in his first press conference as the President-Elect more transparency regarding the program and Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. As if it has learned nothing, the Obama administration is already spinning Rouhani’s election as a result of the illegal tough sanctions that it has imposed on Iran.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. Rouhani’s election had nothing to do with the sanctions, but everything to do with Iran’s domestic politics. To be sure, Rouhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005, was not the candidate of the broad-based Iranian opposition that consists of the reformists, the Green Movement, and other segments of the society. Together with his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, a university professor, former prime minister and a leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the most popular politician in Iran who has been under house arrest since February 2011, as has former Speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi, the third of the trio of the Green Movement leadership. In their absence, the opposition called on the former popular president Mohammad Khatami to run, but the hardliners despise Khatami and made it clear that they will not allow him to. Thus, the opposition decided to support former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a shrewd politician and strategist. But, he too was rejected by the powerful Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets the candidate. But, Rafsanjani’s disqualification also generated a national wave of support for him that was exploited by the two former presidents. After the reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, Khatami’s first Vice President from 2001-2005, withdrew from the race at Khatami’s urging, the two former presidents threw their support behind Rouhani, which transformed the a powerful national wave of support for Rafsanjani to one for Rouhani that swept him into office.

Are there lessons for the United States to learn?

First, Rouhani’s election indicates that the voice of the Iranian people still matters. True, Iranian elections are neither free and democratic, nor fair, but they still matter, precisely because the people’s voice is still strong. Iran is neither North Korea nor Iraq of the Saddam Hussein era. Despite all the restrictions imposed on the society, Iran is still a vibrant and dynamic nation. Thus, the propaganda of the War Party that claims that the only things that matter in Iran are the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the high command of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) [see here, here, and here] is a false narrative.

Second, unlike the false claim made by some Iran pundits, Rouhani could not have won the elections without the strong support of the Green Movement. As I described elsewhere, the election demonstrates the resilience of the Movement. Its greatly exaggerated demise was the work of some of the exiled opposition – the Iranian version of Iraq’s Ahmed Chalabi – consisting of the monarchists, the recently-delisted from the terrorist organizations list, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (see here and here) and Iranian neoconservatives allied with the War Party who want regime change in Iran. Indeed, after Rouhani was announced the winner, the entire country erupted in celebrating with people shouting, "Yaa Hossein [oh, Hossein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Shiites’ third Imam, and a most revered figure in Iran], Mir Hossein [Mousavi];" "Mousavi, Karroubi must be freed," and "the mother of Green Movement [Dr. Rahnavard] must be freed" [see here, here, here, here, and here, for example]. Iran is neither Iraq, nor Libya, nor Syria, artificial nations that were created by colonial powers. It is a nation with thousands of years of written history and deep culture, and Iranian nationalism is fierce.

Third, the elections revealed that Iran’s hardliners are not unified. In fact, deep fissures have emerged even in the IRGC ranks. They could not agree on a single candidate to compete with Rouhani. While many thought that Khamenei’s man in the election was Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator, he was supported by only one faction of the IRGC high command, the reactionaries and Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s son who is a power behind the scene. Khamenei’s candidate was actually his senior foreign policy adviser and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati.

Fourth, and most importantly, the third presidential debates on Friday June 7 not only confirmed the deep fissures in the hardliners’ ranks, but also provided clear evidence that Khamenei is willing to negotiate a diplomatic solution for the standoff between Iran and the United States over Iran’s nuclear program. During the debates, Velayati, who has been very close to Khamenei for decades, fiercely attacked the tactics and positions of Jalili and the Ahmadinejad administration in the nuclear negotiations with P5 + 1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. He revealed a highly sensitive state secret, that Iran .had twice reached a tentative agreement with the European Union to resolve the nuclear standoff, but that the agreements were scuttled by Ahmadinejad, Jalili and their allies.

Given that Velayati is extremely close to Khamenei, it is unimaginable that he would have attacked Jalili and Ahmadinejad without Khamenei authorizing it. If so, it implies that Khamenei is trying to blame Ahmadinejad and Jalili for Iran’s contribution to the failure of the negotiations with P5+1, and that he is sending a signal that he is willing to reach a compromise with P5 + 1. This important point should not be lost on the West and in particular the United States. Given that Rouhani was Iran’s first chief nuclear negotiator [his memoir, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, is a must read], is an expert on Iran’s national security issues [durting his entire career he has worked on national security issues], and has good relations with Khamenei, the time may be approaching for a prudent Washington policy toward Iran that may result in a negotiated settlement with Iran.

But, what can Washington do?

It has become glaringly clear that the blind and back-breaking sanctions that Washington has imposed on Iran have failed to produce the true intended result, a regime change in Iran carried out by the Iranian people. Washington has hoped that the people, hurt badly by the sanctions, will riot and topple the regime, and that the sanctions will bring Iran to its knees. But, Iran is neither Iraq, nor Libya, nor Syria, artificial nations that were created by colonial powers. It is a nation with thousands of years of written history and deep culture, and Iranian nationalism is fierce. And the Iranian people stroked back against the regime-changers at the ballot boxes They demonstrated once again that they are fierce nationalists and reject outside intervention in Iran’s internal affairs, while despising the Iranian hardliners Moreover, they demonstrated once again that the exiled Iranian opposition that works with the War Party and Israel lobby, and had called on them to boycott the elections, does not represent them, and has no base of support inside Iran. By voting in large numbers (73 percent of the eligible voters cast their votes) they showed once again that they want gradual change, rather than regime change engineered by foreign powers.

If Washington continues its destructive and illusory policy toward Iran, then the door to a negotiated solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program that has been opened by Rouhani’s election will shut close again, enabling the hardliners – indeed the entire Iranian nation – to declare with justification that the only thing the United States is interested in is destroying their nation in order to bring about a regime change in Iran and installing a puppet regime in Tehran.

After Rouhani’s victory the White House issued a statement that said in part, "We respect the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate them for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard….The United States remains ready to engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program." Secretary of State John Kerry praised the courage of Iranian voters.

But, such congratulatory statements ring hollow and meaningless, if Washington continues ratcheting up its rhetoric about Iran and its nuclear program, and imposes even tougher sanctions that have hurt, and will continue to hurt the lives of tens of millions of the same ordinary Iranians who have been called courageous by the White House and Kerry. Only 10 days before Iran’s elections, the U.S. announced new sanctions, which were used by Jalili and the hardliners in the campaign as another evidence of the U.S. insincerity toward Iran. This is a lesson that the U.S. seems incapable of learning: Do not do anything that gives an excuse to Iran’s hardliners to justify what they do.

The United States cannot continue trying to destroy Iran and, at the same time, praise its people.