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July 25, 2013

Hill Briefing: Rouhani Election Presents West With Golden Opportunity

IMG_1964 v2.jpg“It is true that the Supreme Leader [of Iran] is the most influential person but in fact the election of Rouhani shows that the Supreme Leader is not the lone decision maker because if he would have been he would have not decided to allow Rouhani to run,” said Bijan Khajehpour, a Tehran-based strategic consultant with a PhD in Business Administration. “The Iranian regime is more than just the Supreme Leader, it is a multilayer constellation where there is ongoing debate, ongoing deliberation about how to resolve issues, how to develop strategy, and so on. And the president is one of the senior members in that constellation.”

On Tuesday, the National Iranian American Council held a briefing on the Hill with guest speaker Bijan Khajehpour, a managing partner at Atieh International, moderated by NIAC’s President, Trita Parsi. Before a full audience of Congressional staffers, Dr. Khajehpour discussed how much change Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, can deliver.

The Iranian people took to the streets on June 15 to celebrate the election of the only moderate candidate in the Presidential race, and the triumph over the radicalism that typified Ahmadinejad’s administration.

Washington has viewed Rouhani’s election with far more skepticism, with many crediting sanctions for his victory. Dr. Khajehpour disagreed with this assumption arguing that Rouhani’s success was not a product of “external sanctions” but rather an “internal process.” The election of “2013 was an extension of 2009” because Rouhani was seen as the best candidate to fulfill the hopes and desires of the Iranian people that met brutal repression four years ago.

A forthcoming study conducted by Dr. Khajehpour at Atieh Inernational, an independent, Vienna-based management consulting firm, indicates that Iranian political activists want an improvement in Iran’s standing in the world, for the Iranian government to show flexibility in the nuclear negotiations, to get sanctions relief, to reject all types of extremism and violent acts, to work towards national reconciliation, and to pay more attention to economic issues including unemployment and inflation.

Rouhani campaigned on these issues, greatly enhancing his popularity with political activists and the Iranian people generally. As a result, Rouhani’s success should be attributed to the desires of the Iranian people, not the regime. The loss of popularity and legitimacy due to the 2009 clamp down was too high for the regime to impose its own candidate. The Iranian people imposed their will on the regime and placed a candidate in office that would represent them.

The connection between 2009 and 2013 can best be seen, commented Khajehpour, through a victory slogan the people were chanting to the regime after Rouhani’s victory, “Didn’t I tell you we would take our vote back?”

However, skeptics are still quick to say that Rouhani will disappoint, similar to previous presidents. But, according to Khajehpour, previous presidents, including the reformist Mohammad Khatami, have been single faction presidents. “Rouhani is the first president who can be considered the product of a coalition” with the support of many networks including Rafsanjani, Khatami, moderate conservatives and both conservative and moderate merchants.

Khajehpour warns that when Rouhani enters office in August it will be important for him to make significant progress with the West while he still has “popular momentum” to break the hardliner narrative. But if a year passes without some degree of sanctions relief or progress on the nuclear issue the hardliners will regain momentum.

With the Iranians being the “only pro-American people” in the region, commented Dr. Khajehpour, there is a great deal at stake. Support for the West among the Iranian people is slowly degrading due to the damage done by sanctions. The Iranians have become very politically aware and understand that if Rouhani comes into office by “offering some good will gestures in attempt “to resolve issues and there is no positive response from the West, then Iranians will start believing that it is all the West’s fault.”

Diplomacy offers the best route moving forward, but Congress could significantly damage opportunities for progress by passing a punishing sanctions bill (H.R.850) before Rouhani enters office. Should more sanctions be passed before Rouhani enters office, his golden opportunity to promote “peace and reconciliation” could turn into a political non-starter. The passage of H.R.850 would “send the message that Washington does not care about the elections, Washington does not care about the more moderate outlook of the next government and it would enforce those people who say forget the Americans” they cannot be trusted, stated Dr. Khajehpour.

The first step to building confidence between Iran and the West would be to tone down threatening rhetoric. What Washington does not understand is that “Iran is principally a reactive player, if it feels the other side is antagonizing it will antagonize; If they feel that the other side is toning down their rhetoric then Iran will also tone down the rhetoric.”

Khajehpour suggested that, at first, Rouhani will be more capable of showing good will outside the nuclear issue, including on Syria and other regional issues. But “as long as the only issue between Iran and the US remains the nuclear issue, it will be very difficult for Rouhani to offer major substantial changes.“ Only when “the price is right” on sanctions relief will Iran be willing to stop uranium enrichment to the 20% level. Given that Washington appears to be insisting on Iran making the first move, it could take time for nuclear negotiations to gain steam.

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