May 24, 2017

With Rouhani, Iran Has Extended Its Hand. Now The World Needs To Unclench Its Fist.

In a region rife with wars, occupation and a distinct lack of democratic freedoms, Iranian voters overwhelmingly re-elected pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani to a second four-year term. They did so knowing that fulfilling their long-standing political, economic and social aspirations will be a marathon, not a sprint. To that end, their willingness to double down on Rouhani demonstrates savvy, strategic patience on domestic and foreign policy. Not coincidentally, the two are interconnected. This begs the question: what do the election results mean on a global scale? Five key issues highlight the implications.

First, Rouhani’s vision for addressing Iranian society’s top priority – alleviating economic malaise – will require another four-year diplomatic charm offensive. His team wants investment, job creation and managerial development to boost the middle class and promote equality – all of which requires improved foreign relations. It is therefore not surprising that Rouhani said he would work to lift all sanctions in his second term. Doing so, however, will be no small task. Washington unilaterally imposes the vast majority of remaining sanctions, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has shown little inclination to engage Iran diplomatically.

This stands in contrast to the majority of the world, which remains eager to improve diplomatic and economic ties with Tehran. The European Union, Russia and China, among others, congratulated Rouhani on his victory and called for continued cooperation on all fronts. America instead called on Iran to affirm free speech – during a joint press conference with the Saudi government, which has long repressed free expression. Trump appears unlikely to reciprocate Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures, thereby causing American policy preferences to diverge from European, Russian and Asian interests. It remains to be seen if Washington can block their economic pursuits.

However, it is more difficult to isolate Iran when its president is calling for constructive engagement with the world. This is particularly true in the context of the Iran nuclear deal. If Rouhani lost the presidency to hardliners, they would have likely matched Trump’s hostility toward the agreement, thereby causing it to erode due to negligence.

Instead, Rouhani, Europe, Russia and China remain locked in to the nuclear deal. Only America is not fully living up to its end of the bargain. This is not sustainable over the long run, and Iran’s continued nuclear deal compliance during Rouhani’s second term will force Trump to choose: fix sanctions-related complications hampering implementation; encounter countries that seek to weaken U.S. control of the international financial system; or kill the deal and isolate America.

In addition to Trump’s America, there are two other countries that will continue to form an Axis of Rejection in response to Rouhani’s foreign policy. One is Saudi Arabia. Despite Tehran’s repeated outreach, Riyadh has refused to respond in kind. During Trump’s state visit to the kingdom, the quid pro quo offered by Saudi leaders was straightforward: “We invest billions in the U.S. economy, you take on Iran for us.” Even if Saudi-Iran relations continue to deteriorate over the next four years, Rouhani will ensure that Tehran’s offer to negotiate remains on the table because his team has long acknowledged what the Saudis are unwilling or unable to: zero-sum policies benefit no one, and no country can truly be a regional power unless its neighbors are willing to accept its power.

The third chief Rouhani rejectionist is Israel. To be clear, Iran’s president has no plans for formal diplomatic outreach to Tel Aviv. He has, however, helped usher in a policy shift predicated on greater restraint. For example, when Israel bombarded Gaza in 2014, Rouhani was relatively silent and disengaged compared to his predecessor. More recently, he openly criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for painting anti-Israel slogans on missiles. Such efforts will likely continue during his second term. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government refuses to acknowledge Rouhani’s restraint, Israeli defense officials have privately conceded as much to me on numerous occasions.

All of the aforementioned complications in relations between Tehran and its rivals in Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv manifest most deeply in Syria. As a disastrous proxy warcontinues to kill and displace millions, the costs steadily increase for all sides. In his second term, Rouhani’s preference is to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement that stops the killing. He may be able to convince more skeptical Iranian stakeholders to accept a Syria in which Assad is no longer head of state if the Axis of Rejection relaxes its position and agrees to two compromises: Syria’s security apparatus remains largely intact, and any opposition members and groups must be mutually vetted and agreed upon by foreign powers at the negotiating table.

Rouhani’s re-election presents a tremendous opportunity on a global scale to double down on dialogue and reduce the diplomacy deficit. His team knows there is no other way to fully accomplish its domestic economic objectives. They are therefore clear-eyed about the challenge ahead: a variety of deep geopolitical disagreements remain intact, none of which can be solved overnight. However, Rouhani’s track record demonstrates that sustained engagement can lower tensions and produce peaceful solutions to conflict. By electing him to a second term, Iran has once again extended its hand. It remains to be seen if the world will unclench its fist. 

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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