This week the new president of Iran, Hasan Rouhani, will address the UN General Assembly and it looks like delegates may not be able to go and pick up their kids from school/have an early afternoon round of golf/hit the pubs for happy hour, like during the Ahmedinejad-days. Rouhani has stated that he has “full power and complete authority” in negotiations of Iran’s nuclear program and made several goodwill gestures that could suggest that he may have the kind of influence needed for change within the Iranian government.
Rouhani, who ran as a moderate and attracted the backing of supporters of the 2009 Green Movement, ran on a platform of improving Iran’s economic situation, international relations and improving civil liberties, which ultimately won him the election by a clear majority. So far, Rouhani has been saying all the right things and appointing the “right” candidates (based on how much his choices were attacked by conservatives in Iran) into key cabinet positions, which would make the West hopeful for progress on the nuclear issue. The main problem with all of this is that matters of national security (i.e. energy policy/uranium enrichment) fall under the power of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Therefor western analysts are skeptical that Rouhani’s election is going to turn the nuclear dispute around – but what if Khamenei is turning around (slowly)?
In the run up to his trip to New York, Rouhani has made several gestures that show that he may be serious about making progress or even resolving the nuclear issue. On 9/18 Iran released 11 of its most prominent political prisoners without much of a notice; furthermore the op-ed in the Washington Post and the recent NBC interview with Ann Curry, were much more carefully thought out and constructive than any utterings of his predecessor. The interview with Ann Curry was not ground breaking by any means and Rouhani’s answers were often as evasive as the ones we are used to from our politicians. But Rouhani made clear that Iran wants to continue peaceful enrichment of uranium within their rights in the NPT and under supervision of the IAEA. Furthermore, Rouhani stated that he was given fexibility in negotiations by Khamenei. Obviously, that alone is not going to convince anyone, but it certainly looks like more influence than Ahmedinejad had on Khamenei.
Rouhani’s advantage in domestic politics is that he has a relationship with Khamenei dating back to the Revolution, as well as links to the military from his time as Air Force commander during the Iran-Iraq war. Rouhani was also top negotiator during Khatami’s presidency, where Iran agreed several times to suspend enrichment activities voluntarily. Furthermore, Rouhani is also backed by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council and the richest man in Iran. Rafsanjani is a long-time rival of Khamenei and has considerable clout within the political system and parts of the military. While Rafsanjani lost some political ground recently, like being barred from the 2013 election, he could be a key figure in the future.
The West has stepped up its sanctions against Iran considerably, which has decreased its oil production to merely 1mm barrels/day, the main source of income for the government and ultimately the Revolutionary guard. If sanctions are “biting” as much as we are told, and Khamenei’s funding sources for the revolutionary guard are starting to come under stress, he may be more concerned about avoiding a domestic power shift, than giving into a nuclear deal.
Granting more civil liberties, freeing political prisoners, agreeing to a nuclear deal would strengthen Rouhani’s position domestically, and arguably Khamenei’s. The better off people in Iran are economically and socially, the less they would be inclined towards regime change, something that should worry the political elite in Iran, especially after the 2009 elections, the Arab Spring and recent events in the region. Khamenei may be a strong supporter of Assad’s regime, but one would hope that if he has the choice between stability at home (especially of his own position) and supporting a dictator that is destroying his own country, he would chose the former and same goes for a deal on the nuclear program.
It will be interesting to see if there will be an actual rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran (Rouhani is scheduled to meet Francois Holland at the U.N. this week) beyond going through the motions of yet another set of fruitless negotiations. It is certainly looking better than it has in the last few years.