- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I’ve been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran’s isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad’s irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he’s likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani’s election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama’s administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama’s overtures and that Ahmadinejad’s departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani’s election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States — dating back for decades now — achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not — repeat not — going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn’t reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there’s the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn’t change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama’s decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington’s regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America’s seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.