News / Middle East

Column: New Iranian President Undertakes ‘Damage Control’

In this photo released by the official website of the office of Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani, Rouhani speaks in a conference in Tehran, June 29, 2013.
In this photo released by the official website of the office of Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani, Rouhani speaks in a conference in Tehran, June 29, 2013.
This Sunday Iran will trade an abrasive diplomatic embarrassment for a far more presentable figure.
 
After eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, almost anyone would look good by comparison. Still, the new president, Hassan Rouhani, a Scottish-educated cleric, comes equipped with personal qualities, experience and relationships that could help stem Iran’s slide into economic crisis and international isolation.
 
“His main point is to rectify the mess resulting from the last eight years, i.e. damage control,” said Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, a researcher of modern Iranian political history at Queen's College, Oxford.
 
Boroujerdi, like many other Iran watchers, is “cautiously hopeful” that Rouhani can turn things around or at least prevent the situation from getting worse.
  
Rouhani’s first priority is stabilizing the Iranian economy. That, in turn, requires that he de-escalate the nuclear crisis with the West to prevent the imposition of new economic sanctions and obtain relief from some of those already imposed.
 
Rouhani will face enormous obstacles, both domestically and internationally. But there are at least four reasons why he might succeed where Ahmadinejad failed:

  • The 64-year-old cleric is a regime insider who has represented Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Iran’s Supreme Council of National Security for 23 years and headed the council for 16 years. Precisely because of this background, Rouhani knows what the supreme leader can and cannot accept and has real influence with him. In 2003, while Rouhani was negotiating with Britain, France and Germany, he persuaded Khamenei to suspend elements of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Rouhani is also believed to have played a major role in persuading the supreme leader to suspend research into developing nuclear weapons.
  • Rouhani has a better chance than his predecessors in bridging the often paralyzing differences among Iranian factions that have doomed previous confidence-building deals with the United States. In addition to his ties to the supreme leader, Rouhani has a very close relationship with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and was endorsed by Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami.  Rouhani also has an ally in parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who clashed frequently with Ahmadinejad.  However, disgruntled hardliners shut out in recent elections may still try to sabotage the new president through human rights abuses or terrorist acts abroad.
  • Rouhani understands how deep a hole Iran’s economy is in and that the only way to stop it from getting deeper is to acknowledge the crisis and achieve sanctions relief. Ahmadinejad wouldn’t even admit there was a hole, so he was in no position to stop digging.
  • Finally, Rouhani or a close aide – perhaps former U.N. ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated prospective foreign minister -- will likely be authorized to hold direct talks with the United States on the nuclear issue and other matters. President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he is ready for such talks. The six-nation process the U.S. inherited from the George W. Bush administration is too unwieldy to produce results. The only tentative accord the U.S. and Iran reached under Obama came in October 2009 when then Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns met for 45 minutes alone in Geneva with chief negotiator Saeed Jalili. The deal fell apart, however, because of Ahmadinejad’s unpopularity following disputed 2009 elections – the other factions accused him of selling out Iran’s interests to bolster his own questionable legitimacy.
 
A less contentious election
 
Rouhani can point to a far less contentious election. He scored more than 50 percent of the votes June 14 in a field of a half dozen carefully vetted candidates. Unlike 2009, when millions of Iranians came out to protest allegations of fraud, this time, they celebrated and appeared to interpret the Rouhani win as belated acknowledgement of their thwarted hopes for change four years ago.
 
While many Iranians would like Rouhani to relax restrictions on civil society and free political prisoners, the new president’s main focus will be on the economy. Here, the challenges he confronts are as formidable as any Iran has experienced since the early days of the 1979 revolution and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iran’s economy has been in recession for the past two years, oil exports are less than half what they were two years ago and inflation is above 40 percent. Iranian factories are closing for lack of imported components; the latest US sanctions, which went into effect July 1, are forcing foreign automotive firms to stop selling kits and parts to Iranian companies. As a result, more than 120,000 automotive workers have lost their jobs over the past year.
 
Many Iranians are struggling to put food on the table and even to find medicine, in part because of high inflation, corruption and government mismanagement, but also because of U.S.-led sanctions. While the sanctions contain so-called humanitarian exemptions, bans on Iranian banks and on transfers of funds to and from Iran have caused foreign suppliers to flee the Iranian market. On July 26, the U.S. Treasury Department expanded a list of medical devices that can be exported without a license and advised foreign companies that they can legally be paid for humanitarian exports to Iran from non-sanctioned Iranian banks and external accounts of Iran’s Central Bank. Without an authorized U.S. banking channel to Iran or relief of sanctions on insuring shipments to Iran, however, it may be difficult to alleviate the shortages.
 
The nuclear talks deadlock
 
By replacing Ahmadinejad cronies with competent technocrats, Rouhani can alleviate some of these problems. But his presidency will likely be judged on whether he can end the deadlock in nuclear talks with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, which are expected to resume early in the fall.
 
Many in the West, and at home, will not miss outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.Many in the West, and at home, will not miss outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
x
Many in the West, and at home, will not miss outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Many in the West, and at home, will not miss outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani has consistently stressed that Iran has a right to enrich uranium, in return for measures to assure the world that Iran is not seeking to make nuclear weapons. He has offered to increase access to Iran’s nuclear facilities going so far as to write, in a letter to Time magazine in 2006, that Iran would be willing to agree “on terms of the continuous presence of inspectors in Iran to verify credibly that no diversion [of enriched uranium] takes place.”

U.S. reaction to Rouhani’s win has been cautious, with officials saying that Washington has no intention of pre-emptively improving a prior offer that demands significant Iranian concessions in return for lifting sanctions on trade in precious metals and petrochemicals. In a conference call with reporters last week, Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk said, “we see the election as a clear expression of the Iranian people’s desire for change [and] are hopeful that will result in policy changes by the Iranian government.”
 
For progress to occur, however, the United States will also have to show flexibility – and Congress curb its appetite for new sanctions.
 
As Boroujerdi put it, “Rouhani cannot do it alone obviously. It will take a bit of time and behind the scenes lobbying and plenty of assurances regarding the terms.”

Click on Barbara Slavin's name below to view her previous columns.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Video British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Multimedia Hit Song Delivers Ebola Message in Liberia

'Ebola in Town' has danceable beat, while also delivering serious message about avoiding infection More

Video New Technology Gives Surgeons Unprecedented Views of Patients’ Bodies

Technology offers real-time, interactive, medical visualization and is multi-dimensional More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid