Help Rouhani – Iran Has Hardliners Too

As a result of over thirty years of intense propaganda against Iran, many are used to a cartoonish image of Iran and its people as extremist fanatics, an image drawn by the War Party and Israel’s lobby in the United States. The Party and the Lobby are interested only in a war with Iran. Thus, the landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential elections of June 14, and his subsequent moderate approach to both domestic and international affairs have surprised many around the world. But, in fact, Rouhani ran on a platform that promised the Iranians a "government of prudence and hope," which is why he was given a mandate by the people to pursue détente with the West and improve their lives at home.

Ever since his election Rouhani has been busy trying to deliver his promises by resurrecting many "dead corps." They include Iran’s economy that contracted by more than 5 percent last year because of the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran. His administration has also allowed the politically-active university students that had been expelled over the past several years to enroll again. But, the most important dead corpse that Rouhani has been trying to revive is the United States-Iran relations. During the nationally-televised presidential debates on June 7, not only did Rouhani strongly criticize nuclear diplomacy of the Ahmadinejad administration, but also promised to take a different approach that would allow "the centrifuges to spin and the economy to roll."

In his first press conference after his election Rouhani promised greater openness over Iran’s nuclear program, saying, “We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries,” adding, “We have to build trust.” Rouhani has also made wholesale changes in Iran’s nuclear team. He has appointed the highly respected, U.S.-educated diplomat, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, as the foreign minister and transferred Iran’s nuclear dossier from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), controlled by the hardliners, to the foreign ministry. Zarif was instrumental in the formation of Afghanistan National Unity government in December 2001, for which he was praised by James Dobbins, the U.S. representatives to the negotiations that led to the formation of the Afghan government. Both Rouhani and Zarif played key roles in the "grand bargain" proposal that Iran submitted to the George W. Bush administration that addressed all major areas of conflict between the two countries. They included opening up Iran’s nuclear program for more transparency, collaborating with the US in Iraq, restraining Hamas and Islamic jihad, and indirectly recognizing Israel. But, the US rejected the proposal.

Rouhani has also removed Saeed Jalili, the hardline chief nuclear negotiator who was secretary-general of the SNSC, and appointed in his place Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a moderate who was the minister of defense in the Khatami administration. He has replaced Fereydoon Abbasi, an officer of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and the hardline head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) with Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the moderate former foreign minister who is a MIT-educated nuclear engineer and a former head of the AEOI. The hardline Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has been replaced with Reza Najafi, an experienced diplomat who told the IAEA Board of Governors on September 12 that Iran was ready to find ways to “overcome existing issues once and for all.”

President Rouhani is also an expert on Iran’s national security and its nuclear program. He was the Khatami administration’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005 and led the negotiations with Britain, France and Germany (the EU3) that led to the October 2003 Sa’dabad Declaration and November 2004 Paris Agreement. According to two agreements Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program and implemented voluntarily the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. He and Zarif proposed to the EU3 to cap the number of Iran’s centrifuges (that enrich uranium) at 3000, but that was also rejected. The two agreements ultimately failed, even though Iran delivered its part of the agreements because, instead of rewarding Iran, the EU3 demanded more concessions.

In an interview with Ann Curry of NBC News President Rouhani spoke about the necessity of removing mistrust and suspicion between the US and Iran, promised that Iran will do what it can to end the crisis in Syria, and praised the United States for not attacking Syria. In an op-ed published by the Washington Post Rouhani declared, "A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss."

In his speech at the UN on Tuesday September 25 Rouhani declared, "Iran seeks to resolve problems, not to create them. Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine." He also stated that Iran is ready to negotiate with the West to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, and warned that the greatest danger to the Middle East peace is chemical weapons falling into the hands of the terrorists fighting in Syria.

Rouhani and President Obama have also exchanged letters that have been described as positive and constructive. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also sent several signals over the past few months, indicating that he too supports negotiations with the West, calling for "heroic flexibility" in the negotiations. So, the stage is set for a diplomatic resolution of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

But, the hawks in the US Congress and hardliners in Israel do not want any rapprochement with Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu has been totally dismissive of Rouhani’s moderate approach. He ordered Israel’s delegation to boycott Rouhani’s speech at the UN (for which he was criticized even by his own finance minister Yair Lapid). He and other Israeli extremists are terrified by the fact that Rouhani’s moderate approach is having a very positive effect.

The Iran hawks in Congress have also been busy. Just the day before both Obama and Rouhani spoke at the UN General Assembly meeting, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-Ariz) wrote in a letter to the President, "Now is not the time to let up on this pressure. Removal of any existing sanctions must depend on Iran’s halting of its nuclear program. Conversely, the continuation or expansion of its nuclear activities will only lead to more sanctions led by the United States and our friends and allies."

Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also sent a letter to Mr. Obama, pressing him to restate US policy toward Iran. "Like you, we viewed the election of Hassan Rouhani as an indicator of discontent among the Iranian people and we have taken note of recent diplomatic overtures by Iran. However, whatever nice words we may hear from Mr. Rouhani, it is Iranian action that matters. Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise," they wrote.

But, what is not talked about is the fact that Iran too has its own hardliners and hawks that reject any compromise with the United States, particularly at a time when the US is threatening Syria, Iran’s strategic ally, with military attacks. Thus, for Rouhani to succeed, he must demonstrate to the Iranian hardliners that his efforts for reaching out to the United States can bear fruits. In his interview with the Washington Post, Rouhani alluded to the fact that he does not have much time to show that his moderate approach yields results:

The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short–and wrap it up. That is a decision of my government, that short is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s 3 months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s 6 months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years.

A speedy resolution of the nuclear conflict that leads to lifting of at least some of the sanctions was also the main point of an open letter to President Obama, signed by 511 Iranian intellectuals, academics (including the author), social and political activists, and former and current political prisoners. The letter appealed to the President to lift the sanctions. It said in part,

Mr. President, we call upon you to take advantage of [President] Rouhani’s presence in New York [to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly] to repair Iran-US relations and improve the regional prospects for peace, which require further cooperation between the two countries. This is an important historical opportunity that must not be exhausted. It is now the US turn and the international community’s to reciprocate Iran’s measures of goodwill and pursue a win-win strategy that encompasses the lifting of the unjust economic sanctions on Iran…

Just as the anti-Iran forces in the US are trying to scuttle any possible agreement with Iran, so also are the Iranian hardliners. Sobh-e Sadegh, the mouthpiece of the IRGC political directorate, criticized Rouhani’s op-ed in the Washington Post and his moderate tune. Sobh-e Sadegh also criticized the aforementioned letter by the 511 Iranian figures, accusing them of begging the US to lift its sanctions. Brigadier General Masoud Jazaeri, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces for defensive culture said, "Those who rest their hopes on the United States either do not know the US and the White House, or do not know politics." He also said that "we must be pessimistic about the United States."

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy chief of the IRGC, declared that there is no flexibility in the force’s strategy for dealing with what he called "the enemies of the nezaam [political system]." He added that "heroic flexibility does not imply putting the nation under unequal [inferior] conditions [with the enemy]." Ali Nazari, another IRGC officer and head of the Organization for Preserving and Publishing the Works of the Sacred Defense [the war with Iraq from 1980-1988]," said "if someone plays in the enemy’s field, the IRGC will confront him."

Mohammad Hossein Asfari, a member of the Majles’ [parliament’s] national security and foreign policy commission, warned that the Majles will not approve any "retreat from the nation’s inalienable rights for nuclear energy," hence warning Rouhani that he cannot make too many concessions. Another member of the commission, Mohammad Kosari, said that Rouhani has a free hand only when it comes to the negotiations tactics, not Iran’s long-term strategy. Keyhan, the newspaper that is the mouthpiece of some of the security and intelligence forces, warned Rouhani that even shaking President Obama’s hand at the UN will be a grave error.

Unlike what the American hawks claim, the economic sanctions are not the reason why Rouhani wants to reach an agreement with the West. Had he lost the elections, the pains of the crippling sanctions would still have been there, but there would have been no political opening to the West by whoever that had won, because Rouhani’s competitors were not moderates like him, but hardliners. Rouhani’s pragmatism, moderate philosophy, and nationalism are the main driving force behind his desire to mend fences with the West.

The danger in the false narrative that the War Party and Israel advocate, namely, that the sanctions are the cause of Rouhani’s flexibility and moderation is that the Obama administration may be made to believe that the détente offered by Rouhani will last as long as the crippling sanctions continue to hurt Iran’s economy. The hawks in Congress also claim that more sanctions could produce more flexibility, whereas more sanctions and not lifting at least some of the existing ones will lead to the squandering of the opportunity offered by Rouhani, and finger pointing by the hardliners. If he cannot show anything for his efforts within a year, Iran’s hardliners will paralyze his administration, just as they did to Khatami’s.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, has been analyzing Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program for the past fifteen years. He is the editor of the website Iran News & Middle East Reports.