Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Rouhani’s double gamble

If Iranian nuclear talks fail, Rouhani will face a conservative backlash. But if they succeed, depending on the fine print, Rouhani could face trouble also, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

If Iranian nuclear talks fail, Rouhani will face a conservative backlash. But if they succeed, depending on the fine print, Rouhani could also face trouble, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

“Evaluating Nuclear Diplomacy During Rouhani” was the title of a conference held last Monday, 18 August, in Tehran. Present were Iran’s nuclear negotiations team and nuclear experts, as well as opponents and supporters of the nuclear talks. But was the conference evaluating Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, or evaluating the president?

 A year has passed since Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran. The main focus of the year has been Iran’s foreign policy and, above all, resolving Iran’s long-running nuclear file with the west.

The reputation of the moderate cleric is safe. He has a long history of engagement with the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy, holding many high profile and sensitive positions. Having led the nuclear talks in 2005, there is no doubt that he enjoys the greatest confidence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Conspiracy-minded hardliners, who consider most journalists and reformist politicians to be collaborators with an unknown enemy, do not trust Iran’s negotiators as much as they trust the president. Their fate might be already set, regardless of the outcome of the talks.

Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) has been described as Rouhani’s priority. If they succeed, the president will have the upper hand. If they fail he will have to surrender to his opponents.

Reaching a comprehensive deal is important for Iran, but the deal was ensure that national pride is preserved and all parties in Iran see the outcome as a win-win. Solving the disputed nuclear issue is also of high importance for western nations.

Western countries want to prevent an unfriendly Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed country in a region that is experiencing terrorism, a rise in extremism, and worsening tribal and Sunni-Shia disputes.

Having a friendly and powerful Iran, on the other hand, could help ease some of the region’s tensions. But compromise has to come from both sides — Iran and western powers.

Solving Iran’s nuclear file during the term of his presidency would give Rouhani historic recognition. The greatest man in Iran’s modern history, Mohammad Mosadegh, former prime minister of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, earned national recognition by nationalising Iran’s oil industry, which was under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company until 1951.

The most celebrated nationalist figures in Iran — Mohammad Mosadegh and before him the 18th-century chief minister to Naser Al-Din Shah Qajar, Amir Kabir — are recognised as heroes. If Rouhani succeeds in reaching a comprehensive deal, he or his popular foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is leading the nuclear talks, would receive national recognition.

Losing the opportunity, or if the negotiations fail, wouldn’t be a national disaster. The pressure on Rouhani’s government to resume talks with the west, especially the United States, would increase many-fold.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the nuclear talks. Over the past year he expressed his trust in the negotiations team. But last week, on 13 August, in a gathering with Iranian diplomats, he indirectly warned the negotiators against getting too close to the United States.

Khamenei’s concern of “not getting engaged with the US on any matter except the nuclear issue” speaks to the sensitivity of the conservative part of the Iranian political system. Normalisation with the United States is not on the agenda of the supreme leader, regardless of Iran’s nuclear talks. And clearly he doesn’t like the friendly approach of Iran’s negotiators.

Also, President Rouhani’s phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, which happened when Rouhani travelled to New York last year to attend the UN General Assembly, caused much controversy. A person familiar with the event told Al-Ahram Weekly off-the-record that Rouhani was supposed to have a personal encounter with Obama at the UN, and to shake hands.

According to the source, as soon as Ayatollah Khamenei learned about the plan he warned the president of dire consequences in Tehran if he shook hands with Obama. Before leaving the United States, Rouhani spoke to Obama for a few minutes by telephone from his plane on the airstrip at JFK International Airport. Upon his return to Khomeini International Airport, Rouhani’s motorcade was pelted with shoes and sandals.

Many eyes are closely watching the team to find any mistakes in order to cancel the talks before the interim deal deadline on 23 November.

If Rouhani’s government succeeds in reaching a comprehensive deal and sanctions are lifted, Iran will have more opportunities to develop its economy and assume a greater regional and even international role. But if the talks fail, disappointed Iranians will give up on Rouhani. Their hopes for improved living conditions will be dashed, and increased extremism and conservatism will be unavoidable.

Even if the talks succeed, Iran is not always kind to its heroes. Amir Kabir was executed in a bathroom while Mohammad Mosadgh was kept under house arrest in a small town for 14 years until his death.

Hossain Mousavian was spokesman of the Iranian nuclear negotiations team led by Rouhani. The National Security Council agreed in 2003 that Iran would provisionally suspend uranium enrichment and allow inspections of nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mousavian’s team was replaced shortly before the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005. It was then that Ayatollah Khamenei announced that Iran would resume enrichment activities.

Mousavian was arrested and briefly jailed in 2007 and accused of espionage for allegedly providing classified information to the Europeans. He was later cleared. Today, Mousavian lives in the United States and is a research scholar at Princeton University.

It is certain that Rouhani and his nuclear negotiations team are well aware of the consequences they may face, regardless of their success or failure. They may want to make history, but it can take years or even decades for a hero to be recognised and admired by the Iranian people. There are no streets in Iran honouring the memory of Mohammad Mosadegh or Amir Kabir, but they are deeply embraced in the hearts of many Iranians.

On 21 December 1953, Mohammad Mosadegh was sentenced to three years in solitary confinement in a military prison, well short of the death sentence requested by prosecutors. Upon hearing his sentence, Mosadegh is reported to have said: “The verdict of this court has increased my historical glories. I am extremely grateful you convicted me.”

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