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Iran's New President: Challenges and Opportunities for Regional and International Cooperation

By Shirin Shafaie

Article first published in Russian and Armenian by The Analyticon: Analytical Monthly Journal
In Russian; In Armenian - Exclusive English translation for Iran Review.Org

Shirin Shafaie

The election of Dr Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s presidency surprised many. Soon after the results were known, different voices in Iran-related political circles started to rationalise their failure to correctly predict the dynamics and outcome of the 11th presidential elections in Iran. [1 ] Those who had been claiming that Iran is a dictatorship ruled by the Supreme Leader [2] now had to explain why the majority of Iranians cherished the results even those who had voted for another candidate or had not voted at all. [3] Many Western analysts and policy makers started to suggest that “sanctions are working” and the “leadership has surrendered” under the influence of unprecedented forms of economic hardship imposed on the Iranian people through blockade of Iran’s access to global financial networks, shortage of lifesaving drugs and vital foodstuffs. [4] This is despite the fact that for years the same Western policy makers had argued that sanctions are designed to only target Iran’s nuclear program and not the livelihood of its people. [5]

Now the question for many analysts and Iran pundits was to find out what the new president will do and how Iran’s foreign policy, especially with regard to its nuclear program, will change under the new administration.

Analyses that suggest Iran’s foreign policy, especially with regard to its nuclear issue, will change according to the personality of Iran’s president or according to the mood of the Supreme Leader are misinformed and misleading. A culture of analysis based on personality of politicians, whether it be a “controversial” figure like Ahmadinejad or a “moderate” figure like Rouhani, amounts to not much more than unproductive political gossip. A more appropriate approach would be to identify real challenges that the president-elect faces and real opportunities that his administration may provide for the peaceful resolution of the costly stalemate between Iran and the West and improvement of Iran’s regional and international relations.

This article analyses the domestic, regional and international challenges and opportunities facing the new president in relation to economy, security, diplomacy and cultural activities.

The line-up for Rouhani’s cabinet is still undetermined but it will most likely consist of prominent figures from Rafsanjani’s administration with a positive track-record of managing Iran’s war-torn economy in the 1990s, i.e. during the “Reconstruction Period” after the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, but also experienced diplomats and former colleagues from Khatami’s “Reform Period”. The credentials of the president-elect as not only a politician but also a social scientist with numerous academic publications and head of Iran’s Centre for Strategic Research indicate that he will consult the expert opinion of young Iranian analysts in different fields and provide them with the opportunity to proactively engage in shaping Iran’s future in domestic, regional and international arenas. Moreover, as the only cleric among the six presidential candidates, and in that a centrist clergyman, he has the support of the clerical establishment in Qom and confidence of the Supreme Leader. Thus Rouhani can be considered as the best candidate for creating a balance between Iran’s domestic power centres, namely Majles (Parliament), Supreme Leadership, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (military), the clerical establishment, and the civil society especially youth and women. Such a balance in Iran’s domestic political environment will in effect help the new president to achieve a more solid and durable consensus in relation to the economy, nuclear issue and foreign policy. Such a durable domestic consensus could provide a more reliable ground for negotiations between Iran and major world powers (i.e. permanent members of the Security Council and Germany or P5+1).

The obvious main objective for the new administration would be to remove sanctions through some reciprocal measures without giving up Iran’s “inalienable right” (under Article IV, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [6]) to uranium enrichment on its soil for peaceful purposes; in other words without losing part of Iran’s national independence and sovereignty. This will be a long and frustrating path with no immediate promise of resolve. Given his positive experience and knowledge of the EU-Iran dynamics, the new president will most likely start by mending relations with the EU countries, especially the UK, France and Germany. According to Rouhani, writing in his 2011 book National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, one of his biggest achievements as the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator under President Khatami was to create a rupture in the Western alliance against Iran and prevent the referral of Iran’s nuclear dossier to the Security Council. Moreover, the only successful nuclear agreement that Iran signed with the West in the past eleven years has been achieved by Rouhani’s team in 2004, namely the Paris Agreement negotiated with France, Germany, and Britain. [7] He may try to once again manoeuvre between the American and European parties and perhaps manage to relieve some of the European sanctions against Iran’s energy and financial sectors through creative handling of future negotiations.

The battle against the US unilateral measures will be less flexible due to the frustrating dynamics between Capitol Hill and the White House. Even if President Obama chooses to deal with the new Iranian president with an open mind and “unclenched fist” (to use Obama’s own terminology [8]), there is absolutely no guarantee that the Congress, highly influenced by Republicans and certain anti-Iranian lobbyists, will follow suit and sign the hypothetical bill for the removal of sanctions. [9] [10] One can only think of the very late removal of some sanctions against Iraq in 2010 which had given the control of Iraq’s oil revenues to the US and the UK.

So long as the US policy towards Iran remains fixated on confrontational strategies for punishing Iran and Iranians into economic strangulation and political unrest, one should not expect the removal of old and recent sanctions but instead await new sanction legislations. These are in fact already on their way even after the election of the new popular and moderate Iranian president. [11] However, more unilateral sanctions by the US can only escalate the confrontation and re-send a message to Iran’s leaders that the US is only interested in regime change and not diplomacy. In other words, Iranians will be reassured that the Western interest in Iran is still focused on gaining unilateral “control” rather than reaching a mutually acceptable “compromise”. Unfortunately the recent history of the country, at least since 1953 and the CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup d’etat against nationalisation of Iranian oil industry, strongly testifies to such agenda.

The new president will also have to focus a significant part of his attention on managing Iran’s reactions to the new developments in the Middle East especially in Syria and Egypt but also in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf. With this regard, Rouhani’s administration will most likely continue to emphasise on comprehensive and inclusive “regional solutions” for “regional crises” and oppose any kind of direct or indirect foreign military intervention in the region.[12]

With regard to Iran’s bilateral and regional relations with its northern neighbours, especially in the South Caucasus, one can expect the new president to pursue not only zero problems with immediate neighbours but also to promote and invest in ever greater collaborations with governmental and non-governmental organisations of neighbouring countries in economic, cultural, environmental, security and energy fields. Even though the combined population of the Caucasus and Central Asia will not exhaust Iran’s economic needs, the region still holds immense geostrategic and geopolitical importance for Iran, namely for transit, maintenance of peace and security, control of drug trafficking, energy and water security, and development of related energy, water and transit infrastructure, all of which are important for sustainable development and improvement of living standards for everyone in the region.

Western unilateral sanctions against Iran have had a damaging impact on long-term provision of peace, stability and economic development in the region. For example sanctions imposed on Iran have already had negative impacts on Armenia given that Armenia’s only connection with the outside world in through Iran and Georgia. Also in political and cultural terms, sanctions have imposed unfortunate conditions on bilateral relations. For example in July 2013 Georgia unilaterally abolished visa-free travel regime with Iran under the pressure from the US government based on US fears that Iran may be using its growing business links with Georgia to skip international sanctions. Certain Georgian officials may have been persuaded, one way or another, to cancel the bilateral visa agreement, however this could in effect negatively impact the Georgian tourism industry and Georgian people who were benefitting from large numbers of Iranian tourists visiting their shops, hotels and country. This will redirect Iranian tourists and businesses to Turkish and Armenian markets where the bilateral visa-free regime is still upheld thanks to the more independent nature of the latter states.

While the new Iranian administration is likely to promote “good foreign interest” in the Caspian Sea region, for example in terms of energy cooperation, infrastructure, trade, tourism and cultural exchange; it will also continue the official policies of the Islamic Republic since its inception based on strong objection to the military presence of alien forces in the region (i.e. “bad foreign interest”) which only increases and complicates threat perceptions and chances for emergence or escalation of regional conflicts. Thus, the new president will continue to be concerned about extra-territorial military presence and proliferation of neighbouring territories as a platform for the US power projection not only in its northern proximity, namely in Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea region, but also in the South and the Persian Gulf (especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), in the West (Turkey and Iraq) and in the East (Afghanistan and Pakistan). However, the US military aid and profits from the lucrative petro-weapon industry (i.e. sale of oil and purchase of arms) might prove too large for some regional governments to forego at the expense of long-term peace, stability and sustainable development for all.

In short, the new president is expected to provide a fresh start to nuclear negotiations and be more equipped and experienced, as compared to his predecessor, in practicing diplomacy with his western counterparts. We may begin to see signs of rapprochement and revival of diplomatic and economic relations between Iran and Europe which will be conducive to improving living standards, peace, security and stability for Iran and its neighbours. However, the new president is unlikely to bring about any major shift in Iran’s strategic preferences or national interests. He will still insist that production of peaceful nuclear energy is Iran’s inalienable right, but he may be more able to negotiate the terms of realisation of that right in a way that is more fruitful for all sides of the negotiating table.

However, the US military, economic and political influence in the region, the long history of mistrust, and the shadow of weapondollar-petrodollar coalition on regional dynamics and complication of threat perceptions between neighbouring countries should not be underestimated. Political economy of the US military assistance to some of Iran’s southern and northern neighbours will continue to dictate many terms of bilateral relations despite long-term interests of regional players. The power of such underlying superstructure is unlikely to change due to the personality of a new president in Iran or even in the US.


1. See the following analyses on this subject: Jasmin Ramsey and Jim Lobe, “On Iran, Wrong but Right”, 20 June 2013, Lobe Log; and Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett and Mohammad Marandi, “Rouhani won the Iranian election. Get over it.”, 16 June 2013, Aljazeera.

2. For a good summary of these views see: Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Iran’s Presidential Election Will Surprise America’s So-Called Iran “Experts””, 13 June 2013, Going to Tehran; also see Barry Cooper, “John Baird was wrong about Iran’s recent presidential election”, 28 June 2013, Troy Media.

3. Mahdi Mohamadi, “How Western Ideological Dogmas about Elections in Iran Collapsed?”, 11 July 2013, Iran Review.

4. See: John Glaser, “Iranian Mothers for Peace: ‘Inhumane’ Sanctions Blocking Medicine for the Sick”, 05 February 2013,; Dara Mohammadi, “US-led economic sanctions strangle Iran's drug supply”, 26 January 2013, The Lancet; Mohammad Ali Shabani, “Living under Siege in Iran”, 11 July 2012, Aljazeera; Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran unable to get life-saving drugs due to international sanctions”, 13 January 2013, The Guardian; Also see Mohamed Yunis, 07 February 2013, GALLUP, “Iranians Feel Bite of Sanctions, Blame U.S., Not Own Leaders”; Note that in Iraq a decade of sanctions (1990s) resulted in the death of more than 500,000 Iraqi children, see for example a report by Barbara Crossette, “Iraq Sanctions Kill Children, U.N. Reports”, 01 December 1995, NY Times.

5. See Daily Press Briefings by the US Department of State, for example:

6. Treaty accessible here:

7. Agreement accessible here:

8. “Obama calls on Iran to ‘unclench’ fist”, 26 January 2009, AFP.

9. “Sen. Mark Kirk breaks with Obama over outreach to Iran's new president”, 18 June 2013, The Hill.

10. See for example analyses by: Jamal Abdi, “New Congressional Sanctions Push Aimed at Killing Iran Diplomacy”, 10 March 2013, Lobe Log; and Navid Hassibi, “The Complex Mechanics of Removing US Sanctions on Iran”, 17 December 2012, PBS.

11. “Congress Not Won Over By Rouhani Victory in Iran”, 18 June 2013, Al-Monitor; “Senate Bill Would Halt Iran’s Access to an Estimated $100 Billion in Cash”, 08 May 2013, NY Times; “U.S. Senators Seeking Tougher Economic Sanctions on Iran”, 09 April 2013, Bloomberg; “Congress Plans Tough New Sanctions Amidst Widespread Skepticism”, 21 May 2013, Arms Control Centre. But also see the following for a sign of alternative and promising new developments: Ryan Costello, “Congress, Former Policymakers Urge Obama to Revitalize Diplomacy With Iran”, 19 July 2013, Huffington Post.

12. See a recent analysis by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Iran Signals Continuity in Its Syria Policy Following Rohani’s Election”, 21 June 2013, Going to Tehran; and Kayhan Barzegar, “Rouhani, Iran Key To Political Solution in Syria”, 17 June 2013, Al Monitor.

*Dr. Shirin Shafaie is a researcher and teaching fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

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