By Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL
For years, it seemed Iran was going deeper into isolation in its standoff
with world powers over its controversial nuclear program.
In 2013, that suddenly changed.
In June, Iran elected a new president who campaigned on promises to take a more moderate approach, including in foreign policy.
And in November, his new government cut a six-month deal with world powers to halt some nuclear activities in exchange for some sanctions relief, a first step toward seeking a comprehensive solution to the nuclear crisis.
But if the two events suggest President Hassan Rohani -- a cleric and establishment insider -- is taking Iran in a new direction after decades of confrontation with the West, the question still remains how far things can go.
Michael Adler, a regional scholar at the Washington-based Wilson Center, says that for now, at least, Rohani's team is off to a strong start.
"There definitely is a new mood, there is a new style, and we already see with the deal that they struck in Geneva that that is something the Iranians can work with," Adler said. "Of course, the big question is how much they are willing to rein in their nuclear program in a comprehensive settlement and we will see that, but there definitely is a new eagerness to negotiate, to work at reaching a solution."
But Adler notes that while Rohani -- a former Iranian nuclear negotiator -- has clearly made the nuclear talks his administration's priority, he still lacks the authority to reach a deal without the backing of Iran's supreme leader.
And that means Rohani's momentum depends entirely upon Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has given him a green light to bargain but is holding his own final judgment of the effort in abeyance.
"The supreme leader has pretty much said 'go ahead' and this is what he said in 2003 when they did the suspension (of uranium enrichment)," Adler said.
"He has pretty much said 'go ahead, try to make a deal, try to work out something with the United States and its allies, but I am telling you that in the end they will just try to cheat us and it won't be a good deal and you will see.' But within that framework, they are free to go ahead and get a deal and the supreme leader reserves for himself the right to say, 'Hey, this isn't a good deal, they actually are trying to cheat us again, we are going to do something else.'"
In 2003, then nuclear negotiator Rohani reached a deal with the three key EU powers in which Iran suspended uranium enrichment in exchange for promises of technical aid for its nuclear-energy program. However, the deal broke down in 2005 amid insistence from Britain, France, and Germany that Tehran also commit to abandoning uranium enrichment, a step the supreme leader refused to take.
Now, nearly a decade later, it remains to be seen whether Iran and the six world powers -- the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- will be able to find a lasting compromise. And the fact that any deal still depends on Khamenei's final approval makes the effort ahead only more uncertain.
Weight Of Sanctions
Still, there are reasons to believe the effort set in motion by Iran's new president has staying power.
Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says the negotiations offer Khamenei a solution to what has become his most pressing concern. That is, how to assure the regime is not threatened by popular frustration over the growing weight of U.S. and EU sanctions.
"What we have here is Ayatollah Khamenei realizing that Iran could not stay on this path for too much longer. When you lose $5 to $6 billion a month in oil revenue, which represents half of your oil-export income, there is so much less money that goes around in this country of 77 million people," Vatanka said.
Sanctions have stung ordinary Iranians
"Remember, Ayatollah Khamenei will never forget that this regime is in place
because of something that happened in 1979, which was not just a political
revolution against the monarchy, it was also an economic revolution. A lot of
those people who stood up against the shah were disenfranchised economically."
So long as Rohani, along with his U.S.-educated Foreign Minster Mohammad Javad Zarif, represent a way out of Iran's economic predicament, they will continue to have Khamanei's mandate to try.
But it is a mandate that cannot be taken for granted because it remains under constant challenge by regime hard-liners, who prefer the highly confrontational approach Iran took toward the West under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, much of that time also with the supreme leader's backing.
All that makes for a delicate balance in Tehran as Rohani proceeds. The new
president campaigned for more moderation both in Iran's foreign and domestic
policies but so far has had to limit his new initiatives almost exclusively to
foreign affairs -- a measure of how carefully he still must tread.
Since taking office in August, Rohani has yet to deliver on his promises for more social freedoms for ordinary Iranians. Some political prisoners have been released. But the key leaders of the Green Movement that rocked Iran with pro-democracy protests in 2009 and 2010 are still confined and political opposition to the regime remains forbidden.
As Vatanka said: "I don't think it is a coincidence that Rohani's first 100 days or so have been heavy on foreign-policy change but very little change in terms of domestic politics. In practical, tangible policies at home, we haven't seen Rohani make any major leaps and I think he hasn't because he doesn't want to see what happened to [former President] Mohammed Khatami between 1997 and 2005 happen to him. So, they are taking a step-by-step approach. Take the first, most imminent issue, which is foreign policy, break the isolation, and then at some point down the path, try to start reforming within."
Reformist former President Khatami saw his efforts to create more freedom of the press and expression rolled back by hard-liners who feared they could compromise the Islamic republic's theocratic system. The theocracy is based upon the presumed infallibility of its supreme leader, whose interpretation of religious law prevails over the country's parliamentary democracy.
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