Published January 13, 2015
Hasan Rouhani knew there was an element of risk.
Just a week before Iran's election gatekeepers announced the presidential ballot, Rouhani said one-on-one talks with Washington are the only way for breakthroughs in the nuclear standoff, given that the United States — as he put it — is the world's "sheriff."
Such a public portrayal of America's importance and the need to make overtures to it undoubtedly rattled a few among Iran's ruling clerics, who decide which candidates are cleared to run. Yet they allowed Rouhani to enter the race, and to the surprise of many, he surged to a runaway victory.
Rouhani's repeated emphasis on direct outreach to Washington may now have a chance for real traction among the ultimate decision-makers in Iran — the ruling clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guard. They have long opposed unilateral talks, insisting they would do no good. But the lack of major blowback to Rouhani's speech in mid-May signaled that the idea is no longer a taboo for the establishment, even if it is not yet entirely convinced. Another sign came from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in March hinted he would not stand in the way.
"We have disagreements with the U.S. on regional and international matters, but obviously friendship or hostility with the world is not permanent," Rouhani told an audience at Tehran's Sharif University in his May address. "Every country can improve its relations with others."
Rouhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 and he has said he is convinced he could have sealed a deal if Tehran had been talking directly to Washington at the time. Efforts are under way for a new, fourth round of the multilateral nuclear talks bringing together Iran and the U.S. and other world powers. Earlier rounds have brought no headway.
It's far too early to gain anything more than hints from Iran on whether Rouhani's election this month could shift tactics in nuclear negotiations.
Rouhani does not formally take office until August. Washington has said it appreciates Rouhani's appeals for more engagement, but knows the meaningful decisions are made higher up by Iran's theocracy.
Moreover, Rouhani has made clear he has the same red lines as the ruling clerics: He said in his first post-victory news conference that Iran will never surrender its ability to enrich uranium — the central issue of the disputes.
Still, the next chief nuclear envoy on the Iranian side is almost certain to side closer to Rouhani's view that seeking one-on-one talks with Washington is a worthy pursuit. It's widely expected that hard-liner Saeed Jalili — who finished a distant third behind Rouhani in the June 14 election — will be sent packing by the ruling clerics to avoid internal tensions.
It may be weeks before a shortlist for successors is known. But some possible names mentioned include former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who finished next-to-last in the presidential race; Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former envoy to the U.N., and Amir Hossein Zamaninia, a former member of Iran's negotiating team.
No dates have been proposed to possibly resume talks between Iran and a six-nation bloc, the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. The four previous rounds since last year have foundered on a central deadlock: The U.S. and others insist Iran sharply scales back its uranium enrichment as a first step, while Iran says the West should ease sanctions as an opening offer.
The West and allies fear Iran's enrichment labs could eventually produce material for a nuclear weapon — and some critics in Israel and elsewhere believe that extended negotiations will only give Iran more time to advance its program.
Rouhani "may well create an opening," wrote Dennis Ross, a former White House envoy for the Middle East and South Asia, in a commentary published Tuesday in The New York Times. "But we should be on our guard: It must be an opening to clarify what is possible and to test outcomes, not to engage in unending talks for their own sake."
Iranian officials, including Rouhani, say that Iran will not give up control over the entire nuclear cycle, which turns uranium ore into reactor-ready fuel, but that it only seeks the technology for energy production and medical uses.
"The bottom line is that Rouhani's views are not a wholesale change from the ruling system's. They are pretty much the same on all the central points on what Iran wants," said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a British-based Middle East expert concentrating on Iranian affairs. "The issue is over tactics and how to get there."
For Rouhani, that likely means pushing the ruling clerics to see the value in direct nuclear talks with the U.S., which broke off ties with Tehran after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Rouhani's frequent references to a failed 2005 accord help explain his views.
He said he was close to a French-backed deal that would have allowed the maximum level of inspection by the U.N.'s nuclear agency in exchange for keeping Iran's nuclear case from reaching the U.N. Security Council, which set in motion layer after layer of economic sanctions over the years. The deal was not backed by France's European partners, and Rouhani now believes it was a mistake not to deal directly with Washington.
"The American are, as the saying goes, the sheriff. So it would be easier if we rather hammer things out with the sheriff than deal with lesser authorities," he told the university audience in May.
The scholar Shabani said Rouhani now hopes to "redeem himself" for letting the 2005 deal slip away.
"It's a mistake to think Rouhani is soft," he said. "He's not. He has a clear view that the only talks that matter — the only talks that are meaningful in the end — are with the Americans."
Whether Rouhani can sell this with the ruling establishment is not so simple.
The supreme leader opened the door in March for one-on-one nuclear talks with the U.S. in a significant reversal of policy. But it was far from a ringing endorsement. "I'm not optimistic about these talks, but I'm not opposed to them, either," Khamenei said.
In the past, Iran has insisted that any unilateral negotiations with Washington deal with a host of disputes between the two countries beyond the nuclear issue. The U.S. has rebuffed such multitasking talks.
One major sticking point could be efforts by Iran's establishment to use any new openings for nuclear dialogue as a back channel forum to discuss the civil war in Syria, where Washington backs the opposition and Iran is firmly behind its crucial alliance with Bashar Assad's regime.
"For much of the Iranian leadership at the moment, Syria is more of a priority than the nuclear talks," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva.
"Rouhani, though, believes the nuclear issue is the key to everything else. You resolve that and then move on to other things. This view may be logical, but may be not what Iran's rulers are thinking. This could leave Rouhani trying to swim against the current."