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A Glimmer of Hope in Iran

BERLIN – No one could have reckoned with Hassan Rowhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was probably more than a little surprised by Rowhani’s first-round victory, following a campaign that began with eight candidates. As a result, the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, as well as the civil war in Syria, may well take on a new dynamic. But that is how it is in the Middle East: you never know what lies around the corner.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the launch, at the foreign-minister level, of negotiations between Iran and the European triumvirate of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom on Iran’s nuclear program. I was there, representing Germany; so was Rowhani, who led the Iranian delegation.

The talks have continued until today – in an expanded format that includes Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the P5+1) – without any tangible results. Now Rowhani returns to the risky business of Iran’s nuclear program, though this time as President. What can we – and he – expect?

Based on my personal experience, Rowhani is a polite and open character. Unlike outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he surrounds himself with very skillful and experienced diplomats. But there should be no doubt that he is a man of the regime – a realist and moderate member of the Islamic Republic’s political elite – not a representative of the opposition. And, of course, he backs Iran’s nuclear program.

If Rowhani wants to succeed in office, he will have to keep his promise to improve Iranians’ living conditions without endangering the Islamic Republic in the process. That will not be easy; in fact, it could amount to trying to square a circle.

The economic improvement that voters demanded in electing Rowhani can almost certainly be achieved only if Western and international sanctions are lifted. But an end to international sanctions presupposes a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations.

It may also presuppose at least a temporary settlement of the main regional conflicts. The Middle East has changed dramatically in the last ten years. America has reduced its involvement, having withdrawn its troops from Iraq and winding down its engagement in Afghanistan by next year. At the same time, we are witnessing the dissolution of the old Middle East created by France and Britain after World War I, when Europe’s two great colonial powers created territorial mandates in Palestine, Syria (including present-day Lebanon), Transjordan, and Iraq.

A new regional order is not yet discernible, which points to a future fraught with risk and possible chaos. As Iran seeks to assert its influence and interests, as well as those of its Shia allies, its dispute with the Security Council over its nuclear program has become closely tied to its regional ambitions. After all, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would most likely exacerbate violent conflict and a nuclear arms race in the region. As a result, both issues may well have to be addressed successfully prior to any move to lift the sanctions.

Iran and its international interlocutors should learn from the past and manage expectations accordingly. There will not be any quick solutions (if, indeed, there are any solutions at all), given the parties’ diametrically opposed interests, their respective domestic and alliance-related obstacles, and a profound lack of trust on all sides.

Moreover, aside from negotiating with the P5+1, Iran would be well advised to launch direct negotiations with the United States. It will also most likely have to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and change its behavior toward Israel, if a positive result is to be achieved.

Similarly, the West will have to understand that the Islamic Republic is not a monolithic dictatorship. The regime has multiple coexisting power centers, which influence and limit each other’s decisions. The office of the president is just one power center. The same applies to the Supreme Leader, who, despite his title, is not an absolute ruler.

Iran has tried two political approaches in the last ten years: a reformist model, under President Mohamed Khatami, and hardline radicalism, under Ahmadinejad. Both approaches failed. The reformers could not overcome conservative opposition, while the radicals could not defeat the domestic economic realities wrought by their foreign and nuclear policies.

Rowhani must seek a path that does not cost him the support of the majority of the regime’s power centers, yet that also allows him to fulfill the mandate he received from voters. At home, too, massive distrust will further complicate an inherently difficult task.

In America and the West, many will probably regard Rowhani as the friendly face of the Islamic Republic, whereas Ahmadinejad was its true – because more radical – embodiment. Many Iranians, in turn, regard Obama as the friendly face of a US that still seeks regime change in their country, whereas his predecessor, George W. Bush, was America’s more honest – because more radical – representative. Both perceptions distort reality, though both contain a kernel of truth.

Despite these perceptions – or perhaps precisely because of them – Rowhani’s presidency offers an unexpected opportunity for both the nuclear negotiations and a political solution in Syria. Iran’s participation in an international peace conference is an absolute necessity, if only to test Rowhani’s seriousness. During the Afghanistan conference in Bonn in 2001, Iran behaved in a pragmatic, results-oriented way – an approach that went completely unrewarded by the US.

As for the nuclear negotiations, the P5+1 will focus on objective guarantees that leave Iran no path toward military use of its nuclear capabilities. For Iran, the focal point of its efforts will be recognition of its right to civilian use of nuclear energy, in keeping with the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its protocols. Both issues sound simpler than they are: the devil is in the details, and the details leave ample scope for disagreement over the definition, monitoring, and enforcement of terms.

Again, maintaining realistic expectations must be paramount. A successful outcome in the nuclear negotiations and resolution or even containment of the main regional conflicts will be difficult to achieve. But it would be the height of irresponsibility not to seize the unexpected opportunity created by Rowhani’s election with all the strength, good faith, and creativity we can muster.

Read more from our "Iran’s New Man" Focal Point.