It is hard to get a clear picture of Rouhani simply because he is not as easily pegged as his predecessor. While Ahmadinejad revelled at giving the world the proverbial finger, Rouhani will definitely take the path less travelled by Iranian leaders over the past 8 years. His strategy will be more in tune with the West’s and he will make Iran’s suspect nuclear program more transparent.
The biggest question remains whether Rouhani’s walk will match the expectations of his talk? Will Tehran back down from nuclear ambitions that include building the bomb?
In order to answer this, it is interesting to note that Rouhani’s criticism of his predecessors is based on two themes:
- “It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running” = the sanctions had taken their toll.
- “All of our problems stem from this – that we didn’t make an utmost effort to prevent the (nuclear) dossier from going to the (U.N.) Security Council” = the sanctions could have been avoided.
Later, at his first press conference as president, he opened the first stages of negotiations by promising “greater transparency” but little else.
Perhaps, in order to understand how Rouhani will approach the negotiating table in 2013, it would be worthwhile to observe how he did so in 2003-2005.
Rewind (2003-2005): Rouhani Promises, Stalls, Promises, Stalls…
At the time, Rouhani was the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Mousavian was a senior member on the negotiating team. The negotiations with the EU3 (UK, France & Germany) ended in Iran’s “voluntary” suspension of enrichment which was soon reversed.
Back then, Iranian diplomacy was focused on buying time: “Iran agreed – in exchange for further negotiations – to suspend its enrichment program, as well as to sign and implement the Additional Protocol. Tehran thus avoided non-compliance with the IAEA’s resolution…a pattern which was to repeat itself throughout the crisis.” Furthermore, this agreement to buy time was underscored by the fact that “Iran would not accept the Additional Protocol” in any case.
The Iranian negotiating team understood one simple fact: the EU3 were serious about getting Iran to the negotiating table but they were not serious about the consequences of Iran’s stalling tactics. The negotiations began to loop around the EU3 accusations, the Iranian denials, the Iranian promises to sign, the Iranian stalling tactics and back to the EU3 accusations.
Rouhani later bragged that reaching an agreement allowed Tehran to develop other parts of its nuclear program without any real trouble because although enrichment was temporarily halted, Iran began to develop aspects of its nuclear program that went way beyond a peaceful nuclear program.
Or as Mousavian later claimed, Iran’s negotiating team had managed to “(take) the wind out of the sails of the American push for international convergence against Tehran’s interests“, allowing Iran to preserve its nuclear technology.
Play (2013 and onward): Rouhani will Promise, Stall, Promise, Stall…
Rouhani will probably not change the course of Tehran’s nuclear program but he will want to change the course of the sanctions this program incurred.
In order to do so, he will probably do what he did best in 2003-2005 – stall. Under Ahmadinejad, Tehran stalled repeatedly (12 fruitless meetings in 2012 alone) but the negotiating team lead by Jalili took the hardline road based mostly on Iranian pride and its willingness to defy the world.
Rouhani’s method of stalling includes handing out carrots at every round of negotiations and then finding a loophole to gain more time.
Should the West open its arms and believe that Rouhani will be a game changer for Khamenei’s nuclear ambitions? Not advisable since Rouhani will accept this strategy as a weakness that can be exploited.
Should the West increase its sanctions and pressure Rouhani into fulfilling his promise to the Iranian people? Not advisable either since Rouhani will exploit this strategy as an injustice that exemplifies the “arrogant powers”.
In short, as Dennis Ross succinctly put it – “Talk to Iran’s New President. Warily” and be ready to increase sanctions if necessary