x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Can Hassan Rowhani end Iran's nuclear deadlock?

The election of moderate Hassan Rowhani as president raises hopes that the deadlock can be broken in Iran's high-stakes nuclear talks with six world powers, including the United States. Michael Theodoulou reports

Hassan Rowhani (centre) flashes the victory sign after voting in Tehran during the first round of the presidential election.
Hassan Rowhani (centre) flashes the victory sign after voting in Tehran during the first round of the presidential election.

The election of Hassan Rowhani as president has raised hopes that the deadlock can be broken in Iran's high-stakes nuclear talks with six world powers, including the United States.

Mr Rowhani hailed his upset win as a victory over "extremism", while Iran's reformist press yesterday championed him as the "sheikh of hope".

A moderate and pragmatic cleric, Mr Rowhani was known for his nuanced and conciliatory approach when he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator a decade ago. During his tenure, Iran suspended uranium enrichment and widened cooperation with international inspectors.

He is "an ideal candidate to spearhead a new initiative to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue", said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran, who has met Mr Rowhani on several occasions, described him as a "courteous, effective and extremely well-informed public servant of the Islamic republic", who has connections "right across Iran's political spectrum".

"He is someone the West feels it can do business with - if he is permitted to do so," Sir Richard said. "There is a reasonable chance that on the nuclear issue, he will help formulate a more flexible Iranian position.

"But I don't see Iran's bottom lines on [support for] Syria or Palestine changing."

At the very least, Mr Rowhani should improve Iran's international image, which took a battering while the mercurial outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, postured provocatively on the world stage for eight years.

Mr Rowhani, 64, won vital endorsements from two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate centrist. Both tried to improve relations with the West and Gulf Arab states.

World powers have expressed readiness to take up Mr Rowhani's offer of engagement.

The White House said it was prepared to engage Tehran directly to try to reach a "diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear programme".

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who acts as chief negotiator for the six powers involved in the nuclear talks, said she was committed to working with Mr Rowhani to find a "swift diplomatic solution".

Sceptics have pointed out that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is deeply mistrustful of the West, controls his country's nuclear and foreign policy. During the election campaign, he gave stark warning that Iran's next president should not make concessions to the West, insisting this would not ease tensions.

Yet the unelected ayatollah does not operate in a vacuum and takes into account the views of other power-brokers in the system, among them the president who acts as the public face of the country, travelling the world.

Mr Rowhani's decisive victory - he won 18.6 million of the 37 million votes cast - is a message to the supreme leader that a majority of Iranians reject his policy of "resistance" and confrontation, analysts said.

The candidate closest to the ayatollah's views, Saeed Jalili, Iran's current hardline chief nuclear negotiator, came third in Friday's election. Referring to negotiations with the West, the dour Mr Jalili had promised "no compromise", a slogan that many Iranians believed ignored the difficulties facing their isolated and sanctions-strapped country.

Mr Rowhani is a staunch supporter of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear programme and a home-grown fuel cycle. But he has argued that a less confrontational approach would allow Iran to advance this programme while easing western concerns and allowing sanctions to be rolled back.

In his first statement after his win was confirmed on Saturday, he called on world powers to treat Iran with respect and recognise its rights, an apparent allusion to its nuclear programme.

Then they will "hear an appropriate response", he said.

In a recent televised debate with the other presidential hopefuls, Mr Rowhani said: "It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running."

It was one of many times during the election campaign that he linked Iran's worsening economy to the lack of agreement on the nuclear front.

Mr Jalili's unyielding stance was also attacked by another candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, who said: "The art of diplomacy is to preserve our nuclear rights, not to see sanctions increasing."

A loyal and veteran foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr Velayati's views are likely to carry weight with the septuagenarian ayatollah, as will those of Mr Rowhani, who is an old friend of the supreme leader.

Mr Rowhani, who will assume office in August, has long been the ayatollah's appointee on the high-level Supreme National Security Council, which has a major say in nuclear policy, defence and intelligence.

Mr Rowhani is now even better placed to convince Ayatollah Khamenei that it is time to shift direction on some matters for the good of the country, as well as for stability in a region tormented by conflict.

There are three reasons why Mr Rowhani might be able to coax Ayatollah Khamenei towards compromise, according to Trita Parsi, who heads the Iranian National American Council, an advocacy group.

First, he will staff key ministries and institutions with like-minded technocrats. Second, he has a record of finding "common interests" between Iran and the West, and, third, he sees the risks of confrontation as exceeding the risks of compromise.

"If Iran moves in a positive direction, the reaction of the West will be crucial to determine how far that change can go," Mr Parsi said. "Any effort by Rowhani to change the relationship with Washington will depend on America's willingness to tango along."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse