America finds itself exactly where Iran was four years ago. Back then, America had just elected a new, articulate president who offered hope and promised a new approach to the world and Iran. His election was a direct rejection of the foreign policy of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, whose favorite tools of statecraft appeared to be military force and confrontational rhetoric.
The question Iran grappled with in 2009 was whether this new president — Barack Obama — really represented change or if it was merely an act of electoral deception.
Today, the roles are reversed. Iranians have elected a new, articulate president who is promising both the Iranian people and the world community hope and a new approach. His election is seen as a direct rejection of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies and rhetoric. Iranians wanted hope and change and they went to the ballot boxes to obtain it.
But four years ago, the Iranian leadership couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the new U.S. president could be a sign of change. Was Obama really intent on shifting Washington’s Iran policy or was it all just talk? Even if his intentions were good, did he have the power to change long-standing policies?
Archconservatives expressed disbelief that Obama could even win. In their cynical view of the U.S. political system, perhaps reflective of their own political conduct, they never thought that Obama could get elected — in spite of his strong popular support. Rather, he won because “those behind the scenes who make presidents and make policies — the puppeteers — decided, and only changed their puppet.”
Similarly today, conventional wisdom in Washington first dismissed as fantasy the idea that Hassan Rohani could win the Iranian presidential elections and later wondered why Iran’s supreme leader had “permitted” this impossible outcome.
Some in Iran accused Obama of putting “on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal,” while others pointed to structural factors inhibiting Obama’s maneuverability. Even if Obama’s intentions were good, the gigantic U.S. foreign policy machinery would overwhelm and devour him, these skeptics said. The supreme leader, Khamenei himself, questioned Obama’s influence.
“I do not know who makes decisions for America,” Khamenei said, “the president, the Congress, [or] behind the scene elements.”
Similarly, Washington critics of Rohani question the role and importance of the Iranian president. They argue that the real decision maker in Iran is the supreme leader and that the president hardly counts. (The same circles made the opposite claim regarding Ahmadinejad’s influence only months earlier.)
Others in Iran were less cynical, but even then, optimism had to be avoided it seemed. Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of the Majles, said in 2008 that he favored an Obama victory “despite our knowledge that U.S. policy will not change much.”
The hard-line view in Iran eventually prevailed. Obama’s intentions and capabilities were unclear, they argued, and as a result Iran could not take a risk by making conciliatory moves toward his administration. Change had to be fundamental and not cosmetic.
Much like Washington’s demand of Rohani today, the Iranians wanted concrete evidence that Obama was sincere. “The U.S. must prove that their policies have changed,” said Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, one of Ahmadinejad’s closest advisers.
At the same time that the Iranians were debating the possibility of change in U.S. foreign policy, they were preparing for it not to happen. The Iranians didn’t miss an opportunity as much as theydismissed it through their cynicism and reactivity. So they obtained the predictable result: Ultimately, Obama could only proceed with his intent for resolving the conflict to the extent that Tehran tangoed along.
Today, the roles are reversed. The new and smiling face is in Tehran; the skeptical and jaded counterpart is in Washington.
Now, it’s Washington’s turn to raise the same arguments Tehran injected in 2009. Rohani is just a new face to an old policy. He is a regime insider and Khamenei loyalist. Or alternatively, he is a reformist whose policies will be blocked by the conservatives at every step. So ultimately, even if he means well, he doesn’t have real influence.
But Rohani can make a difference. He isn’t a reformist but a centrist who won the elections due to the reformist vote. His political center of gravity is at the center. He enjoys good relations with most elements within the Iranian power structure, from the IRGC, to the clergy to the various political factions.
Perhaps most important, he appears to have a mutual agreement with Khamenei. While Rohani used the rhetoric of the reformists in the election campaign, he was very careful to avoid one of their memes: Unlike leaders of the Green Movement in 2009, Rohani repeatedly declared his loyalty to Khamenei and credit the supreme leader for all of his own successes. By this, Rohani signaled that he would not violate Khamenei’s most critical red line: Khamenei will yield Rohani the ability to create or change policy in most areas — as long as the president does not challenge the institution of the supreme leader (Velayat-e faqih).
This is a central difference between Rohani and the leaders of the Green Movement. It makes him less attractive for the purpose of democratization in the short run. But it also increases his ability to deliver in other areas.
Ultimately, change in foreign policy will be limited unless it’s accompanied by progress in Iran’s internal situation. But at a minimum, neither the intent nor capability of Rohani should be discounted.
Obama suffered from this very Iranian mistake in 2009. Now he must be careful not to repeat it.
This article originally appeared in Reuters.