NEW YORK — It’s all bad — the Egyptian coup-by-another-name, the Syrian rebels turning their guns on each other, the ongoing Libyan anarchy. Isn’t there any good news in the Middle East these days?
Why, yes: Hassan Rouhani will be sworn in as the president of Iran on Aug. 4. I know Rouhani is arm candy for the grim theocrats who run the show over there.
But that’s not all he is. Iran’s next president is a pragmatic figure of moderate temperament who admonished a crowd of clerics in a publicly televised meeting last week that "government’s involvement in the social and private lives of people should diminish." And let’s remember that Rouhani was the chief nuclear negotiator when Iran agreed in 2004 to temporarily suspend its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for modest economic benefits. Rouhani’s accession to power just might be good for Iran, and good for the West.
Iran has, of course, a special gift for disappointing expectations. Indeed, the leitmotif of The Twilight War, David Crist’s history of U.S.-Iranian relations since the revolution, is fresh surprise in Washington each time Tehran chooses hostility and disruption over what would appear to be rational self-interest. So first, let’s list the caveats.
As the Iranian press itself has pointed out, Rouhani is a deep member of the establishment, not a "reformist," much less a radical. And on matters which the United States cares about, above all on the nuclear file, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who makes the supreme decisions. And yes, we’ve seen this movie before. In 1997, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who had publicly expressed regret for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, was elected president, the Clinton administration engaged in an elaborate, if largely secret, courtship ritual, including secret messages passed to intermediaries offering improved relations and a speech by secretary of state Madeleine Albright apologizing for past support of the Shah of Iran. The result? Ayatollah Khamenei thundered, "The confessions of American crimes are of no use to the Iranian nation." The relationship just got worse.
So why should it be any different now? First, precisely because Rouhani, unlike Khatami, is an insider and an apparatchik. He knows the red lines, and has shown a penchant for pushing them ever so slightly. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has done the world the inestimable service of reading Rouhani’s 860-page Farsi-language book National Security and Iran’s Economic System. Clawson points out the remarkable fact that, while conceding that the Supreme Leader opposed the deal, Rouhani nevertheless credits the pact with advancing Iran’s effort to join the World Trade Organization, keeping the issue out of the UN Security Council, allowing nuclear technicians to continue upgrading facilities. Clawson argues that Iran could reach a deal today if — a big if — it is prepared to adopt a similar approach.
Is it? The fact that Khamenei allowed Rouhani to run (and win) could mean that the supreme leader and other members of the Iranian elite recognize that they are threatened by the deep alienation of ordinary citizens, and must improve an economy beset by rampant inflation and unemployment. And those problems aren’t going to get better unless and until Iran can convince the West to lift the sanctions imposed on the country’s nuclear program. Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings, compares the sense of domestic crisis to 1988, when the Ayatollah Khomeini installed the pragmatic Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president in order to finally bring the war with Iraq to an end.
This is by no means a unanimous view. Karim Sadjadpour, another Iranian expert, recently testified before Congress that Iran’s domestic crisis is less salient than the conviction, shared by the Supreme Leader and other key regime elements, that "resistance against America," along with "rejection of Israel’s existence," are "inextricable elements of Iran’s revolutionary ideology," and thus that the survival of the revolution — and their own survival — depend on perpetual hostility.
So any new bid by Washington to break the logjam would be a gamble — just as it would be for Rouhani. President Barack Obama has been conspicuously risk-averse on Iran, especially as there is a bipartisan consensus in favour of a policy of confrontation. After seeing his purely emblematic gestures (such as the New Year’s greetings he sent in the spring of 2009) batted away, Obama determined to err on the side of resoluteness. His policy has been to try to force Iran to cry uncle through escalating sanctions. Arguably, that policy indirectly lead to Rouhani’s election. Now the question is whether the administration is prepared to offer Rouhani’s negotiating team — as yet unappointed — the kind of concessions which might carry weight with the Supreme Leader.
Right now, Iran and the "P5 [plus] 1" — the five members of the UN.Security Council and Germany — are stalemated, like Dr. Seuss’s South-Going Zax and North-Going Zax, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Iran insists on an acknowledgment of its "right to enrich." The P5 [plus] 1 has no intention of conceding that notional right, and has demanded that Iran stop enriching nuclear fuel beyond the point needed for strictly civilian uses. In exchange, it has offered sanctions relief so modest that Iran has had very little inducement to negotiate seriously. The stand-off has to be broken by both sides. In an article in Foreign Policy, Robert Einhorn, the former State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, proposed that negotiators work out a long-term "road map" clarifying that Iran will be permitted to retain a nuclear-fuel program with international safeguards and offering phased sanctions relief, and then furnish immediate confidence-building measures in exchange for an end to fuel enrichment.
Is Obama prepared to make such a gamble, even in the face of angry protests from the right and from the Israel lobby? It seems not. A senior administration official told me, plainly: "Our fundamental position is where it is." It’s true, this official adds, that with the election of Rouhani, "we are conceivably in a whole new place," but "the onus is on Iran to give us some concrete response" to the current offer. Message from South-Going Zax to North-Going Zax: You go first. So the negotiations, if they ever restart, will go nowhere, but at least the West can continue to blame Iran.
That, however, would be the mother of all Pyrrhic victories. The collapse of the Morsi regime in Egypt, or the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, do not threaten American national security, however disastrous they are for the people of the region. But as Iran continues to enrich and stockpile highly enriched uranium, and moves ever closer to Israeli and U.S. red lines, President Obama, who has said that "containment" is not an acceptable policy, may find that he is left with no option save to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In the face of such a calamitous possibility, it is not enough to say that one has a defensible negotiating position.
Iran is different from other Middle East crises in one other fundamental respect. Washington has learned how very little it can do to calm the tumult of the Arab Spring. The supreme leader may ensure that American policy-makers draw the same conclusion in Iran as well; but the choices Washington makes could have a decisive effect on the negotiations, and thus on the question of peace or war with Iran. Obama has a new chance to test how far Ayatollah Khamenei will move — or rather, to help Hasan Rouhani conduct that test. It’s true that conducting that test could cost precious time; but the cost of not conducting it could be much higher.
The president has husbanded his capital on the Middle East, taking a secondary role in Libya, steering as clear as he could of the violence in Syria and issuing muted statements on the coup-or-whatever in Egypt. In Iran, where he would have no domestic political cover for a bold initiative, he would have to splurge. That’s asking a lot. But that’s something we have a right to ask.
James Traub is a fellow of the Centre on International Cooperation. Terms of Engagement, his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.