The most significant part of NBC’s interview with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last night was not his announcement that Iran would never seek to develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders have repeatedly said so. Much more important was Rouhani’s assurance that his administration had the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the key decision maker in Iran’s political system—to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. This signals a shift from Khamenei, who has been one of the biggest skeptics of efforts to repair Iran’s relations with the international community and with the United States in particular.
As Iranian-American author and translator Hooman Majd commented on “All In with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC last night, “The Iranian leadership is in sync now for the first time in years.”
This is not to downplay the importance of the gestures Rouhani has made since he took office in August, which are clearly designed to address key concerns of Iran’s major critics in the international community and repair the country’s image in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The release of political prisoners yesterday, while not unprecedented, was the latest move. Human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was named by President Barack Obama in his 2011 Nowruz greeting to Iran, was among those released—something that is not to be overlooked.
There was also an exchange of letters between the two presidents, which, according to Rouhani, “was positive and constructive.”
But Khamenei’s support, without which any Iranian initiative is bound to fail, is the key development here. When he was elected, Rouhani was vilified by many in the Western press for being a longtime regime insider, but it’s worth noting that Khamenei would be far less likely to support his initiative if this were not the case. As a member of the regime elite and not some upstart reformer, Rouhani is able to operate with Khamenei’s backing and trust.
In an early signal of support, Khamenei backed Rouhani’s decision to transfer oversight of nuclear negotiations from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry. This put responsibility for the nuclear negotiations file in the hands of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is widely respected in the West as a pragmatic diplomat.
In a recent speech to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC, Khamenei said that he was “not opposed to proper moves in diplomacy” and that “I agree with what I called ‘heroic leniency’ years ago, because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we stick to our main principles.”
Khamenei also echoed Rouhani’s recent warning to the Guards to avoid partisan politics, telling them that “it is not necessary for the IRGC to be active in the political field, but defending the revolution requires that they understand political realities.” Conservative elements within the IRGC have been among the biggest opponents of U.S.-Iran rapprochement. By asking them to understand “political realities,” Khamenei created political space for the idea that the Islamic Republic’s interests could be best served through a deal on the nuclear program.
This is precisely the message that President Obama has been trying to communicate to Iran since taking office. Addressing America’s adversaries in his 2009 inauguration speech, President Obama promised that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In the yearly Nowruz greetings and multiple rounds of negotiations, the Obama administration has endeavored to show its good faith to Iran, while also making clear that a nuclear weapon will make Iran less, not more, secure.
After five years, President Obama’s two-track strategy of engagement and pressure has helped to create an important moment. While initially dismissed by the administration’s critics as useless gestures, engagement efforts have proven to be an important force multiplier for sanctions pressure. By demonstrating willingness to engage with Iran, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi said that President Obama showed Iranians and the world “that it is the Iranian regime that doesn’t want to talk,” and thereby strengthened the international coalition to put pressure on Iran through economic sanctions.
Those who have called the loudest for increased pressure on Iran should now recognize that the administration’s approach contributed to this new opportunity. And it shouldn’t be squandered.
It bears repeating that these positive statements and gestures do not yet represent a change in Iranian policy. Now is the time to explore Iran’s new willingness to cooperate. In a recent interview, President Obama indicated he was preparing to do just that. “There are indications that Rouhani, the new president, is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past,” he told Telemundo. “And so we should test it.”
Some have suggested that Rouhani is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, meant to lull naïve Westerners with his reasonableness and charm. Interestingly, similar things were said about President Obama by Iran’s own hardliners when he was first elected. But there is only one way to find whether Rouhani is serious: by getting around the negotiating table and seeing if Iran is willing, at long last, to address the International Atomic Energy Agency’s continuing concerns over possible military applications of its nuclear program.
That should be done soon. Rouhani recently said that he would have limited time to show results for his diplomatic efforts. As in the United States, Iran’s hardliners remain skeptical of any moves to better relations with the United States and are waiting for any opportunity to show that his efforts have weakened Iran. The United States and its partners should take steps to show that Rouhani’s efforts will make Iran stronger and more secure, refraining from aggressive gestures that might empower Rouhani’s domestic critics and affirm long-held Iranian suspicions about U.S. goals. It’s imperative that one side not overplay its hand and lose the current opportunity. The question now is whether longtime skeptics of the U.S.-Iran engagement can show the flexibility to get behind a practical, step-by-step dialogue that can produce results.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.