Reinvigorated Rouhani ready to challenge isolationists

The framework deal on Iran’s nuclear programme has given President Hassan Rouhani valuable proof to show the Iranian people that engagement with the outside world can bring results.

Rouhani is a conservative politician in a deeply conservative regime, but he is not an isolationist. He argues that Iran can still observe the principles of the Islamic Revolution and also be part of the global community. The framework deal has given Rouhani essential political space in which he can face down the isolationists and seek to reduce their influence in Iran.

This policy struggle is being conducted within the established halls of power rather than on the streets. Despite his differences with hardline isolationists, Rouhani is not an outsider.

He has been at the heart of Iranian politics for decades; he has been a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, the Expediency Council and the Supreme National Security Council. One of the reasons he has been able to get so far in the nuclear talks is that he must have had broad approval from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has a dominant responsibility for foreign affairs.

As Rouhani seeks to make Iran more engaged internationally, he is not talking to an empty room. Many conservatives also want to have more international engagement. There are well publicised fears that the conservative Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary Basij organisations will seek to wreck Rouhani’s achievements. But the majority of members in the Revolutionary Guard and Basij actually want more open relations with the West, argues Narges Bajoghli on Lobelog.

She found that even after the 2009 crackdown following the Green election, a large majority of members of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij vehemently disagreed with the conservative turn in Iranian politics during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and most wanted an easing of relations with the West.

It may be that hardline factions control the judiciary and parliament in Iran today, but Mohammad Khatami, who ran on a platform of easing both domestic and international tensions, garnered well over 60 per cent of the vote of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij when he ran for election in 2007 as Iran’s first reformist president, and those members have not disappeared, says Bajoghli.

Much of Iran is eager to be re-integrated into the global economy and people are ready to accept highly stringent United Nations monitoring and verification of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from harsh economic sanctions. And Rouhani may be thinking of more international engagement than may seem obvious at this delicate stage of Iranian politics.

Mehdi Khalaji and Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute have pointed out that Rouhani is using the Persian word “tavafogh” to describe the framework deal. The more legalistic “movafeghat nameh” or “tavafogh nameh” would point to a more formal treaty or agreement, while “tavafogh” resonates as something more, such as reconciliation between two people who have been at odds.

By using this word, Rouhani seems to be suggesting that more is coming and that relations with the United States could improve. Khalaji and Clawson argue that this also helps Rouhani create a dichotomy between those who advocate his nuclear policy and his critics: the former are cast as peace lovers while the latter, by implication, are warmongers.

This matches what US President Barack Obama said in his April 4 interview with Thomas Friedman, when he described the nuclear deal as creating “the opportunity for those forces within Iran that want to break out of the rigid framework that they have been in for a long time to move in a different direction”, and added that he hoped that the framework will foster “a new era in US-Iranian relations”.

If Obama can use similar language as Rouhani to describe what they both mean by the framework deal, it will help Rouhani reassure the Iranian public that the deal will work. The lack of a dramatic press conference with all sides shaking hands and announcing reconciliation has dampened the initial wild enthusiasm of the first announcement when people took to the streets and drove around Iran’s cities tooting their car horns and waving at each other.

They are looking forward to the end of sanctions, but the problem is that how the sanctions should be dropped, and when, is exactly where the Americans and Iranians are most at odds and will become the toughest element in the negotiations for the final deal. Therefore, there is a real worry that the deal may fail.

In addition, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have remained silent about the framework deal. As Khalaji and Clawson say, the silence suggests that Khamenei’s camp is not enthusiastic about the framework and that they are studying it before pronouncing on it.

They point out that despite the Supreme Leader’s over-arching control that has certainly allowed the talks to continue as far as they have, the delay can only feed concern that Khamenei will ultimately do what he did with the Tehran Research Reactor accord proposed in 2009, which was to tepidly endorse the agreement in principle and then turn it down when presented with the full text.

Rouhani will need to use his new political strength to resist such an overturn.

Francis Matthew

Courtesy: Gulfnews

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