How Iran is coming in from the cold

Israel calls Hassan Rowhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – but is the new president of the Islamic Republic the west’s best hope of détente?

On a hot summer evening in July 2005, I sat in the living room of the foreigners’ dormitory at Tehran University and watched as Hassan Rowhani gave a speech broadcast on Iranian television. He was coming to the end of his term as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and was publicly defending – yet again – his decision, taken in late 2003, to suspend Iran’s uraniumenrichment activities. Forcefully rejecting hardliner accusations of backtracking or sazesh (a very loaded term in Persian), he reiterated his commitment to the country’s nuclear programme. He explained that the suspension was only temporary but that compromise was necessary to further negotiations with the west. Iran could not live in isolation for ever, he said. Everyone in the room clapped. Even then, the youth loved him.

On 24 September, Rowhani gave his first speech as Iran’s president to the United Nations General Assembly. What he said was driven by the same desire for engagement that I witnessed him articulate eight years earlier. Central to its diplomatic effectiveness was his awareness of the need to reassure his audience. Gone was the defiance of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who had used his UN speeches to lambaste Israel, deny the Holocaust and make disgraceful remarks about the 9/11 attacks). Rowhani stated that Iran posed “absolutely no threat” to anyone and reiterated that its nuclear programme was peaceful.

In this, he was doing no more than repeating Iran’s official position – a line that even Ahmadinejad unfailingly followed – but his statements acknowledging the need to interact with the world and that solving the nuclear crisis was integral to Iran’s national interest were more considered and welcome.

The same can be said of his later remarks in an interview with CNN, in which, seeking to undo some of the damage done by Ahmadinejad, he described the Holocaust as a “reprehensible” crime against the Jewish people. It was no more than he should have said but it was yet another indication that Iranian diplomacy will now be more measured or, at any rate, less gratuitously offensive.

A cynic might say that his performance at the UN was all talk – but this is a crisis largely (though by no means exclusively) fought out in words and he chose what he said carefully. In so doing, he created the conditions for two diplomatic breakthroughs that would have been impossible six months ago. First was the meeting between Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry – the first such formal talks between the two countries since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Then came the phone call between Rowhani and Barack Obama, the first contact between a US president and an Iranian leader since Jimmy Carter spoke by phone with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. In the first month or so of his presidency, Rowhani has overseen more diplomatic progress between the US and Iran than had occurred in the previous 34 years.

Yet Iran and the US are only two of the main actors in the nuclear crisis. The third – and potentially the most volatile – is Israel, which believes Iran is seeking a bomb. Rowhani has unsettled the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, whose description of him at the UN as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” carried in it the shrill note of fear. And well it might: the last thing Netanyahu and the Israeli right need is a moderate Iranian president set on détente. If the prime minister could have voted in Iran’s election, he would surely have chosen four more years of Ahmadinejad – the corporeal embodiment of the “rogue Iran” narrative.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 1 October, Netanyahu promised to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and said that Israel would act unilaterally if necessary. Dangling the prospect of military action against Iran over the “P5+1” (the group of five UN Security Council powers and Germany that is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme) to get it to maintain pressure on Tehran is official Israeli policy. But Netanyahu’s statement had a piquancy born of an awareness that, if some form of détente does happen between Iran and the US, Israel might well be forced to act alone.

Netanyahu was correct to point out that Rowhani had offered nothing concrete towards resolving the nuclear crisis. He rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of Rowhani’s description of the “human tragedy in Syria”, given Iran’s continuing support of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime and of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

This is why, to understand what Rowhani can offer, it is important to understand what he is not. He is no reformer or liberal and he is certainly not the answer to Iran’s problems, which will continue as long as the Islamic Republic exists. He is steeped in the Islamic Revolution, instinctively loyal to its creed and to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, with whom he has had an excellent relationship for 25 years. Rowhani is not going to give up Iran’s nuclear programme and, as he said at the UN in New York, he is not going to halt uranium enrichment, on which the programme is based. He stands by Iran’s long-standing claims that it needs to enrich uranium to make nuclear fuel for reactors it intends to build in the future. (Enrichment is Iran’s most likely route to a nuclear bomb.) However, he is a pragmatist and – by Islamic Republic standards – a moderate, which is not just what the P5+1 wants in a negotiating partner but what Iran needs now more than ever, for its own sake.

Netanyahu claimed that Rowhani’s “charm offensive” was a result of Tehran’s desperate need for relief from the effects of western sanctions and he is right. Iran is in grave economic trouble and it needs a way out. The Islamic Republic has a well-deserved reputation for bloody-mindedness but it also knows when to back down. It did so in 1988, when its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, reluctantly agreed to a ceasefire in the eight-year-long war with Iraq – an act he likened to drinking a cup of poison. It also backed down in late 2003, when fears that the US might attack Iran, following the Americans’ victory over Saddam Hussein, led Khamenei – under Rowhani’s influence – to suspend uranium enrichment (which Iran did for two years).

No one understands the need to compromise in the national interest more than Rowhani. In the run-up to the presidential elections, he repeatedly criticised Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, arguing that it had brought unnecessary suffering to the people. What good is it, he asked in a campaign video released days before the June polls, “if [nuclear] centrifuges are turning but the country is dormant”?

He described it as folly for Iran’s uraniumenrichment plant at Natanz to be operational if 100 other factories were forced to close because of sanctions. The people agreed with him. Iranians voted for Rowhani because they want change – just as they did in 2009, when they voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi (who ended up fraudulently “losing” to Ahmadinejad). They are sick of domestic oppression and of international isolation and it is this discontent that the regime fears above all else. As inflation and unemployment rise, the mullahs know that sustained economic hardship could turn into social unrest.

A couple of days ago, I called a friend in Tehran. During this year’s Iranian elections, he took to the streets draped in the purple colours of Rowhani’s campaign (many wore Mousavi’s green, too). I was keen to find out what he thought of the president’s first month in power. “Cautiously positive,” he replied. He was positive because he likes what he has seen so far – he was especially pleased with Rowhani’s recent release of political prisoners and hoped more would follow.

But he was cautious because, as he told me, “We have been here before.” In 1997, the cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected on a far more reformist platform than Rowhani’s. For the next eight years, Iranians watched as his attempts at change were stifled at every turn by the supreme leader and those around him.

However, if anyone can get things done, it is Rowhani. He has nearly 30 years’ experience of public life. He started out as a young cleric loyal to Khomeini in the 1960s, making speeches against the shah of Iran. His loyalty was rewarded just after the 1979 revolution, when he was elected to parliament. He then held several posts, including leading prestigious defence and foreign policy committees during his 20 years as an MP.

In 1989, Rowhani was made the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – a post he held until 2005. In this role, he took control of nuclear negotiations from 2002 to 2005. He has thrived throughout diplomatic purges, the Iran-Iraq war and in the poisoned arena of Iranian politics. He is above all a survivor, which he will need to be if he sincerely wants détente.

No one in Iran underestimates the challenges he faces. A young architect I studied with in Iran told me that he had joined a huge crowd at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran to welcome Rowhani home after his visit to the UN. He made himself hoarse shouting the president’s name. Only a few miles further down the road, a unit of the Basij (a paramilitary organisation with links to the Revolutionary Guard) was chanting: “Death to America!” The Basijis abused the president and threw eggs at his car. Meanwhile, the hardline Kayhan newspaper described Rowhani’s speech to the UN as “evil”.

Rowhani faces even more serious problems. Most immediate is the assassination of Mojtaba Ahmadi, the commander of Iran’s cyber-warfare programme, at the end of September. He was found with two bulletholes in his chest in a forest near the town of Karaj, to the north-west of Tehran. The assassination was the latest in a series; since 2007, five nuclear scientists, as well as the head of the country’s ballistic missile programme, have been killed.

Iran was quick to blame Israel’s security service, the Mossad, for the previous killings; Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the charges. So far, no one has been accused of the latest assassination; the Imam Hassan Mojtaba division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned instead against speculating “prematurely about the identity of those responsible”. If the killing was the work of Israeli agents, as many believe, the message is clear: Rowhani’s arrival has changed nothing.

It may be that this is the case; that Rowhani is, as his critics say, only stalling for time to allow Iran’s nuclear activities to progress. Even if he is sincere, it is Khamenei, not the president, who rules Iran. He will make the final decision on whether to engage fully or not. But Iran’s president has reached out and the west should encourage him. For all his flaws, Rowhani offers the best hope in a long time that, after more than 30 years, Iran might finally be coming in from the cold.

David Patrikarakos is the author of “Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State” (I B Tauris, £25). Twitter: @dpatrikarakos

Hassan Rowhani in New York in September. Image: Todd Heiser/New York Times

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.