The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next president has prompted two sorts of reactions among U.S. officials and Iran analysts. Some see in Rouhani’s victory a reformist resurgence and are urging the Obama administration to reach out in an effort to “strengthen” him, much as the Clinton administration sought to do after the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Others see a wily trick by Iran’s supreme leader, seeking to slough off the pressure of sanctions by presenting a smiling face to the world and buy more time with diplomacy while expanding Iran’s nuclear activities in the background.
The challenge for the Obama administration is that it cannot yet know which interpretation is correct. It cannot dismiss the possibility that international pressure on Iran has finally produced the sort of change it has been waiting for, but it also cannot risk alleviating that painstakingly-accumulated pressure based on mere hope or speculation.
Unlike outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a relative unknown in the West when he was first elected to the presidency, Rouhani is someone with whom the United States and its allies are well acquainted. From his past statements and positions, we know that Rouhani, far from being a reformist, is a regime insider who has played a key role in advancing Iran’s nuclear program, regional activities and even domestic repression. To the extent he has demonstrated pragmatism or a preference for diplomacy, it has been in service of the regime’s ends, not in an effort to change them. He has described, for example, how he was able to use diplomacy to buy time and space for Iran to perfect its centrifuge program during his stint as nuclear negotiator.
That said, it cannot be ruled out that Rouhani has taken stock of Iran’s dire economic straits and concluded that change is now necessary. If he has, then the question will be whether he will be given the authority to make that change; in other words, whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who by all accounts makes the key decisions on Iran’s nuclear program and other matters of vital interest to the United States, has also concluded that change is necessary and has deputized Rouhani to achieve it.
If this is the case, there may be early signs. If, for example, Rouhani is permitted to replace Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (headed by his erstwhile presidential rival, Saeed Jalili), release opposition leaders from house arrest and make decisions on Iranian policy toward strategic issues like Syria, it may be a signal that he is vested with greater authority than his predecessors. If not, then Rouhani may either be mired in power struggles with Tehran’s multiple and overlapping elites, or, more troubling, his elevation may simply be meant to distract the regime’s domestic and foreign detractors.
In determining its response, the Obama administration is unlikely to have the luxury of waiting to see how these dynamics inside the Iranian regime play out. It must decide on a policy today — one which is neither prematurely dismissive, nor preemptively accommodating.
In this vein, the administration should focus on Iranian actions, not Iranian personalities. Unless and until Iran is willing to meet international demands regarding its nuclear program, its support for terrorism and other activities, fundamental U.S. policy should not change, even as the administration reaches out to Rouhani and probes for new diplomatic openings. Indeed, until Iran relents, U.S. policy should continue to become firmer, especially in response to Iran’s deepening involvement in Syria, which Washington has done little to challenge.
If indeed President-elect Rouhani believes that Iranian policies must change, his best argument will be that those policies have and will continue to impose intolerable costs on Iran, threatening its prosperity and stability. The best way to strengthen those in Iran who hope to see a shift in the regime’s strategy is to make clear the price of that strategy. Easing the pressure on the regime in response to an election would do the opposite, by sending the Khamenei the message that relief can be had on the cheap, without a true strategic shift.
In electing Rouhani, Iranian voters made clear that they want to see change in their country. In a sense, this puts them on the same page as the United States and our allies. We also wish to see change in Iran in the form of less hostile, less confrontational Iranian policies. The difference is that after election day, Iranians cannot hold their regime accountable — participatory democracy in Iran is limited to casting a vote once every four years, and even then is highly circumscribed. Washington, on the other hand, can hold the Iranian regime accountable — by demanding of Rouhani and Khamenei changes not just to Iranian rhetoric, but also to Iranian actions.
Michael Singh is the managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.