This August, Hassan Rouhani will take office as Iran’s next president, and the world will have a new face to confront on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
Rouhani, a moderate cleric, won a landslide victory in Iran’s June presidential elections. He’ll replace the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has reached his term limit.
Any future shift in tone could have a dramatic impact on the path of ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany) and Iran. And already some signs of optimism are beginning to surface.
But to capitalize on this potential moment of opportunity, the Obama administration and the nation’s allies must be prepared.
Although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will retain the ultimate decision-making power, past Iranian presidents have demonstrated an ability to move the country in one direction or another.
Over the course of his presidency, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Mohammad Khatami was able to demonstrate Iran’s commitment to international obligations and maintain a relatively good relationship with the West. During his tenure, Iran agreed to halt uranium enrichment activities and granted United Nations inspectors full access to the country’s nuclear facilities.
Of six candidates who were allowed to run in the June 14 election, Rouhani was the most critical of the current environment in Iran, calling for reforms and improved ties with the international community. His victory represents a clear mandate from the Iranian people, who have suffered a steep economic downfall due to harsh international sanctions. And importantly, the Supreme Leader appears to have taken note, if only by allowing Rouhani’s election to stand.
In light of these changes, some optimism has begun to surface amongst American lawmakers. A recent bipartisan letter in the House, led by Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Charlie Dent (R-PA), was backed by 131 lawmakers. It urged the Obama administration to “pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran’s recent presidential election.” Their letter further expressed the belief that “it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress.”
The document signifies a rare moment of unity, both in Congress and between Congress and the administration, that hasn’t existed in the past.
Likewise, in Iran, it seems clear that the country’s new president intends to follow through on his calls to pursue a greater dialogue with the world. Following the publication of the bipartisan Price-Dent letter, Rouhani tweeted: “131 [U.S.] Congressmen have signed a letter calling on President #Obama to give peace a chance with Iran‘s new president #Rouhani.”
He later announced, again via Twitter, “National Security & Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s parliament to look into potential change in U.S. approach to Iran.” The move has been interpreted as an effort to help raise support for improved relations with the United States.
Washington and Tehran share a long history of mistrust that won’t disappear overnight. But for the moment, it appears that there may be a glimmer of hope.
To capitalize on this moment of opportunity, however, the United States and its allies will need to come to the negotiating table ready to consider a deal that exchanges significant sanctions relief for equally significant action on the part of Iran.
Washington must, in the words of 131 members of Congress, “test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a real opportunity for progress.” If the administration chooses not to take this chance, the moment could be lost.