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Rouhani Report Card: A Year of Diplomatic Breakthrough and Breakdown

Suzanne Maloney

Editors’ Note: This is the second in a five-part SERIES assessing the track record of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, marking the first anniversary of his inauguration. Read the overview analysis here, an examination of his domestic policy here, and economic policy here.

If there had been any doubt about Hassan Rouhani’s priorities prior to his inauguration as president a year ago this week, they were dispelled in the new executive’s first press conference after assuming office. In that session, Rouhani declared with his trademark bluntness that “we are ready to seriously and without wasting any time participate in serious negotiations,” adding that “if other sides have the same notion, I am sure this issue will be solved in short time.”

Rouhani has not yet lived up to that ambitious assertion. But since taking the second most senior position in the Iranian government a year ago, his imprint on the country’s foreign policy is evident, if incomplete: he has helped shape a more dynamic, outward-oriented Iran prepared to take modest risks to move beyond its disputes with old adversaries.

He came to the presidency already an old hand in Iranian foreign policy circles, having served 16 years as the secretary of Iran’s supreme national security committee and led the nuclear negotiations at the outset of that crisis. After a year at the helm, however, it remains uncertain whether even the man known as “the sheikh of diplomacy” can successfully steer his country through two mounting challenges: his own regime’s ambivalence toward necessary nuclear compromises and the regional instability that strengthens the theocracy’s paranoia even as it offers new opportunities for influence.

Iranian Nuclear Diplomacy Takes One Step Forward

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Even before Rouhani’s inaugural news conference, the centrality of the nuclear crisis to his mandate was hard to miss. The issue played an unexpectedly pointed role in the presidential campaign, which featured the first no-holds-barred public debate on the government’s handling of the standoff with the international community.

And in his preparatory steps as president-elect, Rouhani sought to emphasize his determination to jumpstart Tehran’s nuclear diplomacy. He invited the former European Union foreign policy chief (and Brookings Distinguished Fellow) Javier Solana to attend his inauguration, and nominated a prospective foreign minister who was better liked in the U.S. policy community than in that of Tehran.

Of course, even at the time of his inauguration, the negotiating process was already beginning to accelerate, thanks to an August 2013 exchange of letters between President Barack Obama and Rouhani and the revival of a backchannel bilateral dialogue led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

Those talks, in concert with Iran’s formal negotiations among representatives of Europe, Russia, China and the United States, produced the November 2013 interim accord. Partisan politics has already devalued this preliminary deal, as have the roadblocks en route to a comprehensive agreement. This is a mistake. As I wrote last November, the successful conclusion of a diplomatic foray with the Great Satan represented a monumental step forward for Tehran, and positioned the Iranian government in its strongest position in at least 15 years.

It was at least as significant an achievement from the perspective of Washington and its allies. The interim accord was the first real Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue in more than a decade, and the first meaningful step toward ending the crisis. And it was done on the cheap, at little cost to the powerful international sanctions regime that provided leverage to the West and impetus to Tehran for an end to the impasse.

This deal would not have been possible without the election of Hassan Rouhani. Thanks to his adeptness in navigating Iran’s contentious politics, he did what his predecessor, the odious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried and failed to do — sell a settlement to a divided and embattled Iranian leadership. If the nuclear talks collapse tomorrow, the achievement of a pact that set back the Iranian nuclear quest and revived hopes for diplomacy with Tehran, even if only temporarily, will remain an effort that benefitted Iran and the world.

And yet, without a permanent deal that resolves all aspects of the nuclear issue, the interim accord will leave Rouhani holding the bag, much as he was in 2005 when frustration mounted within the system over the suspension of uranium enrichment that he committed the country to implement as chief negotiator. And close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades; any failure to conclude a comprehensive pact will exact a toll on Rouhani’s domestic influence and his effort to rehabilitate Iran and its economy that dramatically overshadows the modest political and economic payoff from the interim deal.

In his initial presidential news conference, Rouhani asserted that “(t)he solution to the nuclear issue requires a political will.” That remains absolutely accurate — but a year after he took office, the sufficiency of Iran’s political will to endorse the compromises that will be required as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal appears more uncertain than ever.

The Islamic Republic Eyes The Islamic State

One of the factors that may be influencing Tehran’s view of the nuclear end game is the metamorphosis of the regional landscape over the course of the past year. Rouhani may have hoped to focus on the nuclear diplomacy in isolation — particularly since his ability to influence Iranian policy on other regional matters, such as Syria, is subject to some doubt.

However, he should have appreciated that the dangerous outgrowth of conflicts in Syria and elsewhere around the Middle East would inevitably intrude on Iran’s international orientation. His mentor, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had a similar experience, when a year after taking office in 1989, an unexpected series of regional and international developments — including the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the end of the Eastern bloc — buffeted his cherished post-war reconstruction program.

Just as with Saddam’s Kuwaiti gambit, the threats currently gnawing at Iraq’s territorial integrity under the banner of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have no doubt exacerbated Tehran’s countervailing imperatives. On the one hand, the empowerment of violent Sunni jihadists and their seizure of key Iraqi cities must strengthen the hand and stiffen the spine of Iran’s hard-liners, and deepen their aversion to any softening of the theocracy’s position toward its traditional adversaries. In this sense, the brutal violence in Gaza serves as the icing on the cake for Iran’s revolutionaries, offering a well-timed opportunity for Tehran to revel in its valued role as the patron and leading voice of anti-American and anti-Israeli rejectionism.

However, it is also clear that Tehran may have something to gain from modulating its antipathies as the flames of sectarianism intensify around the region. In this sense, Iranian interests in averting the expansion of the Islamic State group’s grip and appeal are at least to some extent aligned with those of Washington. The potential benefits of this congruence mandate a more judicious approach toward Iraq’s unravelling and, by extension, toward the other conflicts raging around the region, including the Syrian civil war.

Conventional wisdom holds that Rouhani’s ability to influence Iran’s regional policies is limited, if not nonexistent. This may be true, although the assertion is based on little more than the crude understanding of the traditional division of responsibilities between Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its civilian bureaucracy. In fact, Rouhani’s past experiences as a deputy commander in the Iran-Iraq war and in leading the national security committee give him a deeper knowledge of the country’s powerful security establishment.

For the moment, Tehran appears to be doubling down: reinforcing its ideological and strategic attachment to Bashar Al Assad; exploiting any opportunity to posture as the defender of the Palestinian cause; and seeking to buttress its deep stake in Iraq. Still, the whispers about Iranian efforts to unseat a longstanding if unreliable ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, offer a hint that Iran’s regional stance may still be susceptible to pragmatic policymaking. A president who insisted in his introductory news conference a year ago this week that he intended his government to be “striving to establish peace and stability in the region, and lowering the tensions the region is facing these days” must do no less.