Grounds for hope of change in Iran?

Trudy Rubin / Philadelphia Inquirer /

Published Jun 30, 2013 at 05:00AM

The most fascinating news event of the last couple of weeks was the election of Hasan Rowhani as Iran's president.

The new leader displays a wholly different persona than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose apocalyptic rhetoric and calls for Israel's demise antagonized much of the world. The white-turbaned Rowhani has promised more civil liberties at home and better relations with the international community. Last week, he referred to the long break in Iranian-U.S. ties — in language rarely, if ever, heard from Tehran — as “an old wound which must be healed.”

Which leads to the $64 billion question: Will Rowhani's election open a window for serious negotiations on Iran's suspect nuclear program? And will it prevent the military strike that Israel and President Barack Obama have threatened if Tehran moves forward with its program — a strike that could ignite another Mideast war that nobody wants?

Optimists note that Rowhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, when the Iranians appeared ready for substantial concessions — and when they froze their uranium enrichment program. Pessimists say Rowhani simply puts a better face on a nuclear policy controlled by Iran's hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

I readily admit that skepticism is wise when considering negotiations with Tehran. Yet I find myself tilting ever so slightly, with some caveats, toward the optimists' side.

Why so? First, one can't discount the surprising nature of the election. While no reformer, Rowhani was the most moderate of the six candidates who were permitted to run; he was not expected to be the winner. But moderates and pragmatists, including women and young people, united behind him at the last minute, giving him a majority in the first round of balloting. And — this is key — Khamenei decided the hard-liners couldn't afford to fix the election, as they did for Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Having recognized the need to address the growing frustrations of a majority of the population, the supreme leader must now weigh whether he can afford to frustrate them further with foreign policies that alienate much of the outside world.

Second, Rowhani has unique connections that cut across political lines and could facilitate negotiations. Unlike the previous two Iranian presidents, he is close to Khamenei, who may be willing to cut him more slack in nuclear talks than he did Rowhani's predecessors. At the same time, says the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Karim Sadjadpour, the new president is a “pragmatic conservative” who puts economic concerns above revolutionary ideology.

“It is good to have centrifuges running,” Rowhani said during one of Iran's presidential debates, “provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running.” Clearly the president-elect is concerned about the economic impact of international sanctions caused by Iran's nuclear program. Such practical concerns may encourage him to negotiate seriously.

Third, the absence of Ahmadinejad will improve the atmosphere for negotiations. His Holocaust denials and calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map” convinced many that Iran might actually use a nuclear weapon against Israel if it could make one. Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic mind-set raised the question of whether he believed a war with Israel was required to expedite the much-awaited return of the Shiite Muslim Mahdi, or savior.

The election of a more rational, economic-minded Iranian leader makes it far harder to imagine the ayatollahs risking their wealth and lives for a suicidal attack on Israel. That does not mean Iran should be allowed to develop a weapon, which could set off a nuclear arms race in the region. But it does clear the air before any talks start.

Which brings me to my caveats. The president-elect has already said his government won't again suspend its “right” to uranium enrichment, although this is a basic demand of Western negotiators.

Will Iran agree to sufficient limits on its program and intensive enough inspections to persuade the West to permit some enrichment for limited purposes? And will Ayatollah Khamenei, who must approve any deal, be willing to forgo the anti-Americanism so central to his ideology? It's not at all clear.

Nor is it clear that Rowhani can engender the trust needed to produce a compromise. At his first news conference, he tried to calm the fears of Sunni Gulf Arabs that Iran wants to dominate the region. But Iran's aggressive role in Syria puts the lie to such entreaties, especially when Rowhani insists that the Syrian people should decide their own fate.

Perhaps the question of Syria could be added to the negotiating agenda, but not while Iran's actions there threaten to ignite sectarian war throughout the region. This contradiction between Rowhani's words and his country's deeds underlines the question marks about future negotiations and how much of a difference the incoming president can make.