All in moderation: The US, Iran, and the way forward

By Matthew Duss, Lawrence J. Korb | August 6, 2013

Since his surprising win in Iran’s presidential election in June, Hassan Rouhani, who was inaugurated on Sunday, has been the subject of intense debate in the Washington policy community: Is he, or isn’t he, a moderate? Much ink has been spilled over the question. In fact, just days before his inauguration, Iranian media misquoted Rouhani, reporting that he called for the removal of Israel. Seized upon by American and Israeli hawks, these words were used to support their suspicion that the new president will merely follow in the footsteps of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—but within 24 hours, their assertions were debunked when members of the Iranian and international media revealed that Rouhani had indeed been misquoted

Rouhani can be described as a moderate only in the relative sense that he was the most moderate choice available to Iranian voters; Iran’s Guardian Council, the unelected body that determines candidates’ fitness to run based on their allegiance to the Islamic Republic, rejected the more reformist candidates. But Iranian reformists threw their support behind Rouhani, the longtime regime stalwart who was part of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s entourage while in exile. In fact, former President Mohammad Khatami, a leader of Iran’s reform movement, even asked reformist Mohammad Reza Aref to withdraw from the race so as not to split the reformists’ vote.

While it is certainly significant that Iranian voters, for the second time in a row, chose the most moderate candidate available—one who promised to ease tensions with the outside world—the debate over whether Rouhani is moderate misses the point. That is, the United States has an interest in ending the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program irrespective of Rouhani’s moderation. Indeed, US history is testament to significant diplomatic breakthroughs with far-from-moderate leaders. One example, of course, is President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with Communist China. Mao Zedong—with policies that resulted in the mass murder of tens of millions of Chinese—was not, by anyone’s estimation, a moderate. Yet Nixon’s success with Chairman Mao remains one of the most important and consequential acts of statesmanship in recent US history.

The question is whether Iran, under Rouhani’s administration, will be able to deal forthrightly with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), and address the international community’s concerns on potential military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.

A reputed pragmatist, Rouhani has expressed that ideology must not stand in the way of advancing Iran’s interests, and he has demonstrated an ability to deal constructively with Western leaders: This is where American policymakers and analysts—interested in overcoming the nuclear impasse—should rightly focus.

Yet, in a broader sense, the debate over Rouhani has not truly been about Rouhani at all. It’s a miniature version of the larger policy debate among American policymakers and analysts over what the Islamic Republic really wants—a civilian nuclear program, a nuclear weapons capability, or an actual, deliverable weapon?—and whether increased diplomatic engagement is the best way to address the problem.

Some American policymakers argue that the best and only way to reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program is by applying pressure and threatening the Republic. That is the logic underlying the latest round of sanctions passed by the US House of Representatives on July 31: Continue piling on pressure until an economically battered Iran finally cries “uncle.”

A similar argument is made in support of threatening Iran with military action. In June, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Marvin Kalb wrote that a Congressional authorization of military force against Iran “could empower the president to press Iran harder on agreeing to a compromise.”  As we have maintained, there’s little evidence that this view would lead to a successful outcome. Quite the contrary: Using the example of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, which drew applause from US hawks, this approach effectively torpedoed any chance of rapprochement that had been championed by many Iranian reformists.

Communicating seriousness and resolve to adversaries is a touchy business in international relations, particularly in the case of the United States and Iran, where few lines of communication exist, and the possibility of misinterpretation is high. In the past, such gestures designed in Washington to communicate these things have been received in Tehran as evidence of unreasoning aggression, and have affirmed and empowered those factions in the Iranian government who most oppose any rapprochement with the United States.

One thing upon which most agree is that Iran’s nuclear work progresses. Thus, the time to push for a nuclear deal—which would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—is now. The West shouldn’t have any illusions that President Rouhani, whose past writings make clear that he is a supporter of Iran’s rights to a nuclear program (which also enjoys broad support among Iran’s population), will simply capitulate to Western demands. But he also has been a critic of the way Iran’s negotiators have managed talks with the P5+1 over the past years, which has resulted in greater isolation for Iran. There are clearly those inside Iran’s government who feel that they profit from continued hostility toward the West, and the United States in particular, and would very much like to prevent Rouhani from succeeding in lessening tensions. Ideally, American leaders should not do anything to assist them. Rather, they should set out to work with the new Iranian president to see if a mutually agreeable compromise—one that recognizes Iran’s nuclear rights and addresses the international community’s concerns—is possible.

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