Iran: Rouhani’s courage offers cause for real hope | Observer editorial

The Iranian president’s desire for talks with the US suggests rapprochement is a possibility

Today, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, elected three months ago on a platform of “prudence and hope”, arrives in New York to address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, a few hours after the traditional opening speech by the host, President Obama. “Go and wake up your luck” is a traditional Persian proverb. In the latest of a series of surprise moves, on Friday Rouhani woke up the international community with an article in the Washington Post that hinted at a possible end to the nuclear standoff that has acted as a tinderbox in the Middle East for years. “A zero sum cold war mentality leads to everyone’s loss,” Rouhani wrote. His goal, he explained, was “constructive engagement”. Over the coming days, Obama and Rouhani will engage in a delicate dance of diplomacy – perhaps even meeting face to face to demonstrate signs of an accord – not least so that the latter can return home with the beginning of an American-Iranian entente that even diehard Middle East pessimists say has the promise of something historic, a milestone for the region.

In the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the pace of change since Rouhani’s unexpected victory in the summer has been unprecedented. In his first news conference, the centrist Shia cleric promised that “if the United States shows good will and mutual respect, the way for interaction will be open”.

Last week, as further proof of his intent, 11 prominent political prisoners were freed, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. More releases are rumoured. Friendly letters have been exchanged between Obama and Rouhani. Rouhani recently tweeted new year’s greetings to Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah and he arrives in New York today accompanied by Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the sole Jewish member of the majlis, the Iranian parliament.

In a recent television interview with an American channel, another first, Mr Rouhani said that Iran would never “seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons” and that he had “full power and complete authority” to strike a nuclear deal. Ultimate power lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Observers say his support for this new diplomatic offensive is apparent in the transfer of authority over the nuclear issue from the hawkish national security council to the foreign ministry, now led by Mohammad Javad Zarif. American educated, he spent five years until 2007 as Iran’s ambassador at the United Nations. Zarif is said to welcome the signs that “the drums of war in the region” are going silent. Tomorrow, he is due to meet William Hague, the foreign secretary, and the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, who has been a party to the nuclear talks.

In spite of these positive manoeuvres, the memory of the bloody reprisals exacted on the Iranian opposition, the green movement, following the surge for change in 2009, is still fresh. And so are the images of Mr Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the UN General Assembly, denouncing “uncivilised Zionists”, suggesting the Holocaust was a myth and accusing the US of an “international policy of bullying”. Still, Obama has his best chance yet to make good his 2008 campaign promise to explore the possibility of improved relations and a nuclear rapprochement with Iran.

The three key questions at this juncture are: why is Iran making overtures now? Has Rouhani the time and the clout to keep his country’s hardliners in check in the face of Israel’s insistence that the “mad mullahs” still rule and Iran’s nuclear programme continues to advance? And what might a rapprochement, however fragile, look like? Why now is a question in part answered by the state of the Iranian economy since sanctions were tightened still further last year. Financial restrictions prevent Iran selling goods for hard currency. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, oil revenue has dropped by 45%, costing the economy about $150m a day in lost earnings; industrial production has fallen by 40%; unemployment has risen by a third and consumer prices have shot up by 87%. All of which adds up to major public discontent. Recent events in Syria have also added leverage. Iran has strenuously backed Assad. As a result, a poll in March revealed that Iran was viewed unfavourably in 14 out of 20 Arab and Muslim countries. Russia’s proactive involvement now may open up a resolution to the Syrian debacle.

Rouhani has a short-term tactical advantage in that Iranian hardliners have been left in disarray since his shock election. However, any sign of an American reprimand, rejection or humiliation and, domestically, Rouhani will be wounded; second chances are rare. So what shape might negotiations take? On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addresses the UN General Assembly. If the US keeps him in line, optimism may grow. For months, however, “Bibi” has been repeating his demand of a four-step formula. Iran must stop enriching uranium; remove enriched uranium from the country; close its nuclear plant near Qom; and stop “the plutonium track”, the path to nuclear weapons. For his part, Mr Rouhani has asserted his country’s right to have a peaceful nuclear energy programme, including the right to enrich uranium for fuel. The contours of a potential nuclear deal are visible, says IISS analyst Dina Esfandiary.

It includes greater transparency, ensured by international inspections (inspections that Israel continues to refuse). Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is also prepared to shut down the Fordow nuclear-enrichment plant in return for a relaxation of sanctions.

Rouhani is an establishment man, not a radical. A protege of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, he has been an influential fixer since the revolution, becoming a former head of the national security council, central to Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy. Educated in part at Glasgow’s Caledonian University, he appears to be interpreting Khamenei’s instructions on “heroic leniency” as a call to pragmatism at an opportune time.

Now aged 64, Rouhani is also propelled by another powerful force for change – a young population well connected digitally to the outside world despite the regime’s best efforts. It was the young who voted him in as a representative of the opposition. “A strong government,” Mr Rouhani has observed, heeding the import of that endorsement, “is not a government that limits the lives of people.”

It is early days. Iran remains an Islamic theocracy with a tight hold on its citizens. However, Mr Rouhani has exercised considerable courage and conciliation. Obama must respond with tact, sound offers and good faith. The impact for Iran, not so long ago seen as a continual threat to world peace, and for the rest of the Middle East, could be momentous. For now is a time for hope. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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