By Sean Savage/JNS.org
The win of the so-called “moderate” Hassan Rohani in Iran’s presidential election has renewed hope in the West that the nuclear standoff with the Islamic Republic may end, as opposed to the stalemate experienced under outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But in the past, Iran’s nuclear program has continued to progress, and nuclear negotiations with the West have broken down, under the watch of moderate leaders.
Rohani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, a time when Europe was providing a diplomacy track to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program under another so-called “moderate” president, Mohammad Khatami. But those negotiations “were a spectacular failure,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, told JNS.org.
“Later on, Rohani made a statement in 2006 that [Iran] leveraged Europe’s willingness to talk to buy time for the nuclear program,” Berman said.
“That should inform you how to think about him,” he added.
Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor at Rutgers University who considered running on a reformist platform for Iran’s presidency but decided not to submit his candidacy, explained that after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Rohani was a member of a group called the “combatant clergy organization,” which eventually split into the left and the right. The left became former Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami, and Rohani went to the right, but he was “more pragmatic and moderate than most of the right,” Amirahmadi told JNS.org.
“I would consider him to be more pro-Western than most of the leaders on the right in Iran,” Amirahmadi said. “In the domestic policy, he never was a member of the reform movement and did not support the ‘Green Movement’ in 2009. But he always stood somewhere in the middle and worked with all sides.”
Despite the Western media’s reporting that Rohani won a strong mandate, gaining a clear majority with 51 percent of the vote and avoiding a run-off, Amirahmadi explained that his victory was not as resounding as it may seem.
“The problem for Rohani is he doesn’t have a very strong mandate. Most of the votes went to Rohani because Rafsanjani and other reformists were not allowed to run,” Amirahmadi said.
“The most difficult thing for Rohani is that the ultra-rightist candidates still got a significant share of the votes,” Amirahmadi added. “They may have lost, but they are still there and have tremendous support. They [the ultra-conservatives] still have the Revolutionary Guards, the basij [street militias], and the fundamentalists clerics behind them. They are the real power out there.”
Amirahmadi also explained that Rohani might not be able to choose many of his government ministers, including important positions such as the defense, intelligence or foreign ministers. Additionally, Rohani will be constrained by a number of “red lines” that Khamenei will set for him on issues such as the nuclear program, negotiations with the West, and economic issues.
“[Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei will try his best to control him in the beginning and gradually see if he can deliver anything without passing the red line. He is a weakling at this point,” Amirahmadi said.
With the election of Rohani, many in the West are hopeful of a thaw in the nuclear standoff with Iran. In his first press conference after being elected, Rohani promised more transparency for the nuclear program.
“Our nuclear programs are completely transparent. But we are ready to show greater transparency and make clear for the whole world that the steps of the Islamic Republic of Iran are completely within international frameworks,” Rohani said, Reuters reported.
On Sunday, the White House described Rohani’s victory as a “potentially hopeful sign” and welcomed a return to nuclear talks.
While some are optimistic after Rohani’s win because they considered it a setback for Khamenei’s conservative policies, Berman believes that the election result may actually work out in Khamenei’s favor by giving the regime less scrutiny from the international community over its nuclear program. Former president Rafsanjani, who was also viewed as part of the opposition and a critic of the Iranian regime, was frequently quoted as saying that “Ahmadinejad’s firebrand style was drawing too much attention and criticism from the West,” Berman said. During the 2009 Iranian election, Rafsanjani noted that the nuclear program actually “moved more quickly under his tenure,” Berman noted.
“Under Rohani, I think that the same approach will happen,” he said. “His ‘moderate’ style will buy additional time for the nuclear program for the regime.”
Speaking along those same lines, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that now is not the time to ease pressure on Iran, possibly allowing them more time to make progress on their nuclear program.
“We are not deluding ourselves when it comes to the results of the Iranian election,” Netanyahu said Sunday at his weekly cabinet meeting, Israel Hayom reported. “The international community must not get hung up on its own wishful thinking and become tempted to ease the pressure on Iran.”
On Monday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, said that Iran continues to make “steady progress” on its nuclear program despite sanctions.
“There is a steady increase of capacity and production [in Iran’s nuclear program],” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said, Reutersreported. Asked by reporters if he believed that sanctions were having an effect, Amano said, “I don’t think so… I don’t see any impact.”
Amirahmadi told JNS.org that the West is giving Iran more time because of its ambiguous policies regarding the nuclear program, and he believes a more straightforward approach to negotiations is necessary.
“The West, especially the United States, needs to get rid of this stupid unclear policy of ‘all options on the table’ and offer Iran a more straightforward solution, either war or peace,” he said. “They should ask Iran, ‘Are you ready to make sacrifices for peace?’ I think if you put that on the table, the Iranian people will pour into the street supporting peace and the regime will have no choice but to support it. They cannot afford a war with the U.S.”