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?

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

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