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The Domestic Politics Driving Iran’s Diplomatic Shift

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
September 25, 2013
Financial Times


The public relations rollout of Hassan Rouhani can best be compared to the unveiling of a new iPhone by the late Steve Jobs. The Iranian president is placed at the centre of a media frenzy, with scores of interviews, receptions where the global elite can mingle with the latest curiosity from Tehran and, finally, a speech at a high-profile gathering.

But Mr Rouhani's success abroad does not mitigate his problems at home. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who holds the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic, and his aggrieved Revolutionary Guard are wary of the new president. It is the domestic manoeuvres of these three parties that is likely to define the terms and limits of Mr Rouhani's diplomacy – particularly regarding Iran's nuclear programme.

Shortly after the president was elected, the powerful Revolutionary Guard subtly conveyed its view. An article appeared on a website close to the elite corps suggesting that it would confront "an emphasis on negotiating with America . . . and satisfying Europe and the White House".

It has long been known that the Guard oversees Iran's nuclear infrastructure and has a vested interest in the programme's survival. It was during Mr Rouhani's tenure from 2003 to 2005 as the nuclear negotiator that the programme was suspended, causing much resentment among those scenting the power of atomic weapons. Mr Rouhani's appointment of Ali Shamkhani – a longtime guardsman and an advocate of Iran's nuclear surge – as head of the Supreme National Security Council must have calmed nerves. The programme remains firmly with the SNSC despite official claims it has been transferred to the foreign ministry. Mr Shamkhani will devise the strategy while Mohammad Javad Zarif, the urbane, thoughtful foreign minister, will present it at any international talks.

Events since the election have been particularly kind to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader's foremost objectives are preservation of the regime's revolutionary identity and ensuring that resistance to the west remains the main of pillar of his republic. Before Mr Rouhani took office, Mr Khamenei was saddled with a fractured elite and an unsympathetic international community. All this has now changed; the Islamic Republic has now cobbled together a domestic political consensus, and its president is being praised at home and abroad.

Mr Khamenei is likely to offer Mr Rouhani an opportunity to craft a nuclear settlement, but the terms have to be acceptable to the ever suspicious supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guard. Should the president succeed, commerce and contracts will return to Iran, ensuring the survival of the regime. Should he fail, a unified elite will try to persuade the Iranian populace that the cause of their hardship is American truculence. Putting aside the bickering and back-stabbing that has characterised Iran's politics in the past eight years, the Islamic Republic will try to fracture the international consensus on its nuclear programme. Either way, Mr Khamenei wins.

Given his domestic constraints, Mr Rouhani has launched an apparently clever strategy. If the mission of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his predecessor, was dramatically to expand Iran's nuclear apparatus, Mr Rouhani's task is to gain international – particularly American – acknowledgment of that programme. He appreciates that the unwise and incendiary rhetoric of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad did much to mobilise the great powers against the republic's nuclear ambitions. In his maiden speech at the UN, Mr Rouhani stuck to the themes of opposing violence and favouring negotiations.

By changing the style and tone of its diplomacy in this way, Tehran can offer itself as a stable power and so legitimise its nuclear programme. By condemning the chemical weapons attacks in Syria as opposed to suggesting that the evidence was fabricated by Washington and Jerusalem, and by calling for nuclear transparency as opposed to denouncing the inspectors as spies of a mendacious west, Mr Rouhani can present Iran as a regional stakeholder not just a violent spoiler. Should perceptions of Iran change, then perhaps its nuclear programme can seem less menacing.

In the next few weeks, in a variety of conclaves and conferences, Iranian and western diplomats will test each other. It remains to be seen whether the international community will be comfortable with the new Iran retaining its nuclear plants. It seems implausible that Mr Rouhani can escape the noose of the sanctions without offering some measurable concessions on the scope and scale of the growing nuclear programme. Still, it may come to pass that he will be given allowances and reprieves not offered to his impetuous predecessor.

Hovering over all this, will be Iran's most consequential decision maker, assessing his latest protégé and determining the scope of his authority.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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