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Rouhani's Nuclear Ambitions - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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File photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

File photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Hassan Rouhani’s surprise victory in the June 14 Iranian presidential elections generated a wave of optimism that has reverberated far outside Iran’s borders. Very similar to the election of Barak Obama in the United States after the George W. Bush years, Rouhani was welcomed because he is widely seen to represent a break with the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The new Iranian president did not shy away from the expectations placed on him. Even during the election campaign, Rouhani promised to spend his first 100 days in office conducting a detailed analysis of the country’s real situation and then present a plan to deal with the various challenges facing Iran. In what is perhaps a sign that the Ahmadinejad legacy is a problematic one, the 100-day deadline has already passed, and the presentation of that report has been delayed. Nevertheless, the Rouhani administration has reiterated its pledge to increase transparency in the decision-making process.

Since taking office in August, Rouhani has focused his efforts on allaying Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities, with an eye on relieving the sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy. The Rouhani administration has shown quite a few signs of its determination to open a new chapter in its relationship with the West and to put an end to years of mistrust. There was a reshuffling of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and the foreign ministry was deputized to lead the nuclear talks. There was also a clear change of tone among Iranian officials on the nuclear issue and the normalization of the relations with the United States, as well as on the willingness of the Islamic Republic to ease tensions with Arab countries.

Given all the energy and political capital put into this dossier, the key measure of Rouhani’s success right now is his administration’s ability to dispel doubts about the nuclear program. While some analysts have made positive assessments of Rouhani’s foreign policy during his first three months in office, there are still those who hold doubts about the outcome of the ongoing nuclear negotiations.

“The tense atmosphere that dominated the nuclear talks until recently is now gone, and hopes have been raised for cooperation. That is a breakthrough that the Rouhani administration has achieved in a short period of time,” Ahmad Naqibzadeh, a professor of politics at the University of Tehran, said in an interview.

“The Rouhani administration has focused all their efforts on foreign policy. If the Western [governments] and Iran’s regional rivals do not stonewall [his efforts], the way will be open for future talks,” he says. “If the Western [governments] do not have unreasonable demands, the negotiations will come to fruition.”

Reza Taqizadeh, a UK-based expert on international affairs, believes that the Rouhani administration is following in the footsteps of its predecessors. “Hassan Rouhani has tied the resolution of Iran’s economic problems to the resolution of its foreign issues, and the resolution of foreign issues to the easing of [Iran’s] nuclear standoff,” he explains. “Since the start of talks, Iran has been, like the previous administrations, only haggling. If Iran had an intention of breaking this deadlock, it would have offered clear proposals,” he says.

Regarding the recent obstacles encountered in the nuclear talks, Taqizadeh believes that the Rouhani administration “is facing obstacles inside and it cannot give the nuclear program up. Meanwhile, the US administration is grappling with its own problems and it cannot give the concessions the Islamic Republic may demand.”

“That is why both sides have contented themselves with giving sweet promises and often speak of relative progress in the talks,” he added.

[inset_left]”The essence and turning point in the foreign policy of Rouhani are the ongoing nuclear talks.” –Sadeq Zibakalam[/inset_left]Despite these challenges, some believe that Rouhani’s first few months in office can already be characterized by a number of important diplomatic achievements. These include his address to the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September and his historic telephone conversation with Obama. Also seen as significant is the meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his counterparts from the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, as well as Zarif’s one-on-one meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in New York.

During the two rounds of talks held between Iran and the P5+1 since Rouhani took office, Tehran has sought to ease concerns about its nuclear program. The surprising presence of US, British, French, Russian and German foreign ministers in Geneva to join nuclear talks about Iran underlined the significance of the latest round of talks, which are set to reconvene on November 20.

However, some believe that it was the sanctions that played a key role in pressuring Iran to seek a solution to the nuclear issue, and they are not optimistic about the outcome of the Geneva negotiations.

Taqizadeh highlights the harmful impact of the sanctions on Iran’s economy, saying: “The losses endured by Iran’s national economy due to the persistence of the present circumstances are much more than the concessions the government may win from Western governments through its bargaining.” As he explains, “Due to the unilateral sanctions, Iran has losses of 500 million dollars a day. Politically speaking, Iran will not be able to win any specific concessions from the P5+1 to strike a balance to its current position.”

He believes that the Rouhani administration has missed a chance to have the nuclear issue resolved: “They are moving ahead and if the current positions continue, these talks are doomed to fail, although they may refuse to acknowledge failure.”

Sadeq Zibakalam, professor of politics at the University of Tehran, expects further steps will be taken following the restart of the stalled nuclear talks.

Zibakalam argues that Rouhani’s foreign policy—and, by extension, Iran’s position in the world—depends almost completely on his efforts to lead Iran out of the nuclear impasse: “The essence and turning point in the foreign policy of Rouhani are the ongoing nuclear talks. If Mr. Rouhani manages to break the nuclear deadlock to some extent and reach a preliminary agreement with the Europeans about Iran’s nuclear activities, further steps will follow in foreign policy.”

Yet he also warns that “if, for whatsoever reason, he fails to break the deadlock with the P5+1, he is unlikely to succeed in his policy of détente with the West and the US, and basically [he will not succeed in] in any change in the foreign policy restored by conservatives over the past years.”

In parallel with the ongoing nuclear talks, many thought the Islamic Republic would try to improve its relations with Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia. But no serious gesture has been seen from either side over the past three months, despite Rouhani’s self-declared intention to improve Tehran–Riyadh relations.

Ali-Reza Nourizadeh, the director of the London-based Centre for Iran–Arab Studies, said Iran and Saudi Arabia are largely divided about what is going on in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. He noted that bridging this widening gap between Tehran and Riyadh will take time.

But Nourizadeh argues that Rouhani, Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi are among the officials who favor better ties with Saudi Arabia.

Generally speaking, the Rouhani administration has achieved some progress on the nuclear issue during its short time in office. Although the sanctions are still in place, few fresh sanctions have been imposed. The taboo of negotiations with the US has been broken to some extent. Iran–UK relations, cut in October 2011, are improving, as attested by the exchange of non-resident chargés d’affaires between the two countries. Now, there is no choice but to wait and see if the talks between Iran and the West will produce any tangible results.