The unexpected victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential elections has raised hopes that dialogue may soon ease the US sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy for the last three years. During that time Iran’s oil exports have fallen by almost half, the cost of basic foods has soared, the local currency has lost nearly two-thirds of its value. Inflation is currently running at close to thirty per cent.
The new president is a Western-educated moderate who is willing to reopen discussions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He carries the endorsement of two prominent earlier reformers — Rafsanjani and Khatami. Also significant is the fact that Rouhani’s late surge in the polls was mostly due to his performance in televised election debates which allowed him to use his experience as a former nuclear negotiator to show up the shortcomings of the man who replaced him. That such a sensitive issue could be publicly debated so close to an election is one of several indications that Iran’s public sphere has begun to tolerate less orthodox opinions, particularly with respect to its inflexible stance on uranium enrichment.
Less clear, however, is how Washington will respond to this unexpected turn of events, especially as it faces daily complications elsewhere in the region. The White House was quick to congratulate Iran’s voters for “courage in making their voices heard” and it urged the new government to “heed the will of the people.” But it pointedly abstained from offering congratulations to the victor, and chose instead to dwell on the “intimidating security environment that limited freedom of expression and assembly” during the elections. That oversight could easily produce other mistakes, especially if the hawkish Congressmen who have long wanted outright military confrontation with Iran persuade the Obama administration to maintain its scepticism.
Iran’s voters could have sent no clearer signal they are ready for better relations with the country’s longtime adversary. But the opportunity must be seized with a magnanimity that has not been readily apparent in Obama’s recent foreign policy. America has become increasingly willing to sustain low-intensity conflicts in the Middle East – drone strikes in Afghanistan, outsourced regime change in Libya – or to watch the ripple effects of the Arab Spring from afar rather than risk large diplomatic initiatives. Small-bore solutions have kept the US out of another Iraq-style miscalculation, but they can only go so far. Arming Syria’s rebels avoids the political quicksand of another foreign war, but it does very little to decrease the likelihood of further bloodshed nor does it set the stage for lasting political solutions. Better relations with Iran offer a sliver of hope that there may still be a political escape from the current impasse, particularly given Tehran’s key role in sustaining the precarious rule of Assad.
Iran’s importance to the wider stability of the Middle East cannot not easily be overstated. Several of the region’s largest security dilemmas, especially the transnational proxy wars being fought between Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq and Syria, have their ideological origins in the United States’ troubled history with Iran. Ever since the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis – itself a belated response to the 1953 CIA coup against Mohammed Mosaddeq – pushed America into a reflexively belligerent stance towards Iran, the wider Middle East has become a latter-day Great Game of related intrigues. With the US coming under increasing pressure from its own hardliners to intervene directly in the complex Syrian conflict, less embattled relations with Iran could not be more important.
Speaking to university students in Tehran, former president Mohammad Khatami urged them not to hold “misplaced expectations” about the likely pace of change. He told them “We cannot get rid of this devastating inflation and unemployment and change our foreign policies by tomorrow.” His hope that the population would remain “patient and realistic” should give pause to any American politicians who believe Iran’s reformers will have enough time to enact their policies, particularly with the punitive US sanctions still in place. Earlier reformers, Khatami among them, were utterly baffled by American intransigence towards the Islamic Republic, most notably during the presidency of George W Bush. The new arrivals will fare no better if the Obama administration is not prepared to meet them halfway.