Regime Change Obama Can Believe In

Iran just opened itself to a nuclear deal -- but America has to make the first move.


Just when the world had given up hope for meaningful change in Iran, the country’s presidential election produced a surprise. Rather than a repeat of the 2009 conservative victory, the token reformist candidate, Hasan Rowhani, whose campaign called for moderation at home and constructive relations with the world, defied the odds to win a clear majority in the first round of voting. This is a welcome repudiation of the Ahmadinejad years and a clear popular challenge to the conservative chokehold on Iranian politics. The world can take heart in the fact that majority of Iranians voted for a break with the Ahmadinejad legacy and that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards chose not to reverse the election’s outcome in a repeat of the debacle of 2009.

This is all good news for Iranian politics, but what matters most to the West these days is the fate of the country’s nuclear program. There is cautious optimism that popular support for moderation at the polls will translate into concessions at the negotiating table. Rowhani sent clear signals during the presidential campaign that if elected he would seek to end Iran’s international isolation. Favoring engagement over resistance, he said, "We have no other option than moderation." That may well be the case, but a nuclear deal is still far from certain, and in fact this June surprise could confound U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran.

For starters, Rowhani may have won the popular mandate, but it is Khamenei who will make the final decision on the nuclear program. Iran’s counterparts in the P5+1 — the diplomatic bloc composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany — would welcome seeing the back of the hardline negotiator Saeed Jalili. But even if Rowhani managed to persuade the supreme leader to sack his protégé and favorite in the recent elections, Iran’s position on its right to have a nuclear program is unlikely to change.

In fact, President Rowhani will be particularly aware of the risks inherent in negotiating with the P5+1. Rowhani was widely excoriated in Iran for ostensibly betraying the national interest in 2003, when, as the country’s nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That concession was meant as a confidence-building measure to build momentum for a broader nuclear deal, but the reformist hope turned into defeat when talks failed amid allegations that Iran had violated protocols laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The supreme leader and his conservative coterie concluded that the suspension had been construed as Iranian weakness and only invited greater international pressure. They blamed Rowhani for having put Iran on its heels. The defeatist image became a stain on the reformists’ reputation and contributed to the conservative juggernaut that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005.

Ahmadinejad lost no time reversing the suspension. In a matter of days, the West offered Iran a new diplomatic package that reportedly included trade incentives, the promise of long-term access to nuclear supplies, and assurances of non-aggression. Rowhani’s boss, the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, complained that in doing so the West had rewarded Ahmadinejad’s brazen defiance over the reformists’ gesture of compromise.

Once bitten twice shy, Rowhani is unlikely to yet again risk being branded as soft on the West. He will venture concessions only if he is assured of tangible returns. This time it has to be Rowhani who gets more out of the United States than Ahmadinejad and Jalili did — and they had been offered spare aircraft parts and, in the last round of talks, relief from international sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals. Rowhani will be looking for real sanctions relief and a promise of recognition of Iran’s right to enrichment.

The dilemma for Washington is that, as a reformist, Rowhani is an outsider, weaker than Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran’s suspicious conservative establishment. Rowhani’s electoral mandate gives him room to maneuver, but that is not enough to shield him from the backlash that would follow any rebuff at the negotiating table. So he will likely wait for a signal of American willingness to make serious concessions before he risks compromise.

For the past eight years, U.S. policy has relied on pressure — threats of war and international economic sanctionsrather than incentives to change Iran’s calculus. Continuing with that approach will be counterproductive. It will not provide Rowhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks, and it could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue.

Washington must realize that its success in rallying the international community to isolate Iran was due in no small part to Ahmadinejad’s bombastic style. In denying the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and deliberately ratcheting up tensions with the West, he made it easy to paint Iran as an existential threat to Israel and a menace to the international community. Washington will find it difficult to make the same case when Iran has elected a reformist president who has publicly repudiated his predecessor. Nor will the United States be able to as easily threaten war — or inflict economic pain — on a country where half the population has voted for positive change.

Rowhani’s victory is not regime change in Iran — but it is a game-changer. The supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards continue to control all the levers of power. However, the election result has altered the face of Iran, enough to put to question the continued viability of American policy. There is now both the opportunity and the expectation that Washington will adopt a new approach to strengthen reformists and give Rowhani the opening that he needs if he is to successfully argue the case for a deal with the P5+1.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has relied on economic sanctions — backed by veiled threat of war — to get Iran to agree to a nuclear deal. It has offered Iran little in exchange for giving up its nuclear program, in effect hoping that Iran would capitulate. No Iranian president, conservative or reformist, would accept that outcome, or survive the political firestorm it would unleash at home.

To take advantage of Rowhani’s victory and break the logjam over nuclear negotiations, Washington has to put on the table incentives it has thus far been unwilling to contemplate. It will have to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to Western demands. At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports. Ahmadinejad is faulted in Iran for wrecking the country’s economy. Populism, mismanagement, and international isolation have combined to put Iran’s economy into a downward spiral. Between 2009 and 2013, real GDP growth has fallen from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, unemployment has risen to 17 percent, and inflation has grown to 22 percent — and those are official numbers, which tend to downplay the gravity of the economic crisis. It is estimated that 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Reformists will grow in strength if they are able to show that they can reverse that trend by at least getting the West for the first time to offer negotiating away specific sanctions.

The Obama administration has spurned the possibility of sanctions relief because escalating economic pressure on Iran is popular in America, while the appearance of conceding to Iran i
s not. The White House, which has tightly controlled Iran policy, has thus far seen serious diplomacy with Iran as politically dangerous — a risky gambit with a low chance of success and a high cost for failure. President Obama does not want confrontation with Iran, but he has also been unwilling to assume the risk — and spend the necessary political capital with Congress and the American public — to pursue a diplomatic strategy. Staying the course — relying on economic sanctions under the guise of exploring diplomacy — has been the default strategy. This has had the added advantage of being the Bush administration’s strategy, which means Republicans have been hard-pressed to oppose it.

But a reformist victory in Iran should give the administration greater room to maneuver. The American public will be more open to a new approach to Iran now, and Rowhani’s election should give Congress pause in further intensifying sanctions. Washington need not lift any sanctions yet, but simply being willing to discuss the possibility in exchange for Iranian concessions would be a sea change in the nuclear negotiations. Failing that, nothing will change in the nuclear impasse and the reformist moment could just be that. The ball is in Washington’s court. 

Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and is author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Twitter: @vali_nasr

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