By Ali Vaez, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The history of Iran-U.S. relations is littered with missed opportunities. The Obama administration should make sure that the victory of a moderate president in Iran doesn’t become another one.
Sending a letter of congratulation to the new president on his inauguration day – August 3 – would be a positive first step. Conservatives in Tehran will have to bite their tongues, remembering Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s congratulatory note to Obama in 2009. Republicans in the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, will have a hard time accusing the president of somehow endorsing Iran’s faulty electoral process, given that most U.S. allies in that region don’t even hold elections.
But more important than recognizing the legitimacy of a political process in which well over half of Iran’s population participated is signaling to Iran’s leadership that Washington is willing to find some sort of common ground moving forward. This could, for example, include reversing the U.S. objection to Iran attending the Geneva 2 conference on the future of Syria, a move that could be justified by Tehran’s new political face.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Obama administration has tried to shake things up. Almost four years ago, President Obama made a genuine effort to mend Washington’s relations with Tehran when in a televised message he uttered the official name of America’s adversary – the Islamic Republic of Iran – or the first time since the 1979 revolution. He then went further by sending two letters to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But those efforts came to naught as Iran descended into turmoil following the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Since then, U.S.-Iran relations have cooled further. But on June 14, the political ground shifted in Iran when Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic moderate, was elected president. His victory blindsided observers both inside and outside of Iran. Indeed, despite much speculation ahead of polling day, the election was neither an ignominious charade nor a dull intra-conservative affair. The turnout was impressive and the outcome unexpected.
It is, of course, easy to be skeptical about how much will change. After all, Rouhani is the ultimate regime insider, having served for three decades and survived all of the upheaval. Some will therefore attribute his victory to behind-the-scenes politicking or even see it as part of a plan for advancing the nuclear program. Others will contend that as long as the Supreme Leader remains in charge, the president is irrelevant.
Yet the presidential election result more likely came about because of, not in spite of, the Supreme Leader, who allowed Rouhani to enter the race, gain momentum and win. In the past, Khamenei had directly, or through the powerful Guardian Council, barred candidates from the electoral arena. But he did not block Rouhani, who appears to remain in the good graces of Khamenei and is his personal representative to Iran’s influential National Security Council. As such, he is likely to enjoy the leader’s support in governing.
All this said, the president-elect is far from being a pitchman. Rouhani also has good relations with the reformists and centrists whom Khamenei has sought to marginalize. While constitutionally the leader’s authority trumps that of the president, Rouhani could still have meaningful impact on agenda setting and major policy decisions. In addition, his tone and team selections will affect the way Iran conducts its relations with the outside world – and its nuclear negotiations with world powers.
The reality is that it would be hard for the leadership to ignore the strong demand for change that surfaced during the campaign and crystallized in Rouhani’s victory. That change necessitates bringing Iran out of isolation, rehabilitating its anemic economy, and finding a way to lift sanctions. Because Iran’s complex political system inherently prefers continuity over change, expecting a radical policy shift might prove wishful thinking. But gradual change is possible, and Washington now has a choice – it can help cultivate this opportunity or squander it.
Sadly, the White House’s initial reaction was not promising. Instead of congratulating the president, who has the support of a significant part of Iran’s population, it said that “…despite [the] government obstacles and limitations, the Iranian people were determined to act to shape their future.”
Other unconstructive forces have, meanwhile, taken on a life of their own. Sanctions that were enacted in January will come into effect next month. The Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 blacklists the entire energy, shipping, shipbuilding and port operating sectors in Iran. And more sanctions are in the pipeline. It is also quite likely that, absent any progress in negotiations, Iran’s relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency might take a turn for the worse when the agency’s board meets in September, even before the new Iranian president has settled in.
Still, although it is not easy to change these dynamics, it should be possible to avoid exacerbating them. Instead of piling on more sanctions and threatening the new Iranian administration with military force by reminding them that “all options are on the table” but that “containment is not,” President Obama should repeat and act on his message of four years ago that an unclenched fist begets an extended hand.
The Iranian people have opted for change, and the Iranian regime has now countenanced it. The ball is in President Obama’s court.