We don’t yet know whether Hasan Rouhani’s election as president of Iran will improve the prospects for a nuclear deal — prospects that had dimmed significantly as a result of continued stalemate in the negotiations in the first half of 2013. But if the United States and its partners are to take advantage of whatever opportunity may exist post-election, they need to move quickly to review and adjust their own approach.
There are reasons for thinking the situation may have changed for the better. The election’s most encouraging development — aside from Rouhani’s win itself, which was surprisingly decisive — was that it revealed a deep discontent about the country’s hard-line diplomatic strategy. Although several candidates criticized the “no compromises” approach to talks, which was defended by candidate and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, the sharpest rebuke came from Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and the supreme leader’s foreign policy adviser. In the June 7 debate, he said, “When you take three steps and want the other to take one hundred steps, it’s clear that you don’t want to advance matters.” And he concluded that “our current nuclear negotiations definitely have problems; otherwise we would not be in our current situation.”
That critique is remarkable for two reasons. First, Velayati and the other critics are drawing a direct connection between Iran’s rigid negotiating posture and the deprivations suffered by the Iranian people as a result of sanctions; they are arguing that Iran must adopt a more conciliatory approach if it wants to reverse Iran’s downward economic spiral and rebuild its international standing. Second, this assessment comes from regime stalwarts but stands in sharp contrast to what Supreme Leader Khamenei and other hardliners have been saying: that the sanctions, while harsh, can be weathered, that the economic difficulties were caused by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement and can be remedied by a new president, and even that the sanctions are a blessing in disguise because they encourage Iranian self-reliance and reduce dependence on oil revenues.