Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the Iranian election is stunning. It opens a window of hope for an easing of tension between Iran and the West on the nuclear file but also on the more urgent issue — the self-destructive clash between Shia and Sunni Islam that threatens West Asia.
Although Rouhani had been well ahead in the final pre-election polls, no one expected him or anyone else to receive enough votes to avoid a runoff. Two things seem to have swung so many people to Rouhani’s side: endorsement by former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. This meant that the centrist and reformist camps had coalesced behind one man, while the conservative vote was split between the five other candidates.
The second factor was Rouhani’s stellar performance in the three debates and the poor presentation by Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator, who had earlier been seen as the frontrunner. Rouhani promised to ease tensions with the West and to try to end sanctions. The clear message from the electorate is that they prefer his more rational approach.
How Rouhani will proceed once he takes office is not yet clear, but one of his former aides on the nuclear file, Hossein Mousavian, recently highlighted a proposal that Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, made last year. Salehi offered to turn Khamenei’s 2003 fatwa banning nuclear weapons into a “secular document that would bind the [Iranian] government”. This would give much greater force to Iran’s longstanding denial of interest in having a nuclear weapon. In return, all sanctions should be lifted and Iran’s rights under the non-proliferation treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes should be openly recognised by the UN Security Council. Salehi’s proposal was ignored in the West, but it deserves serious consideration, if Rouhani as president re-confirms it.
The US needs to take stock and think hard after this surprise result, especially as its first reaction was full of blunders. It patronised Iranian voters by saying they showed “courage in making their voices heard” and was rude in urging Rouhani to “heed the will of the Iranian people”. If the US is really “ready to engage the Iranian government directly”, why did it not have the courtesy to send Rouhani a message of congratulations?
At the heart of the conflict between Iran and the West is the US’ unwillingness to accept Iran’s independence in foreign and domestic policies. Instead, the country’s government is constantly demonised, and its intentions put under suspicion. The psychological wounds of having US diplomats taken hostage in 1979 have not been allowed to heal, while on the Iranian side the US and British role in toppling their government in 1953 has also not been forgiven.
When the last moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, was in power, the US foolishly invented “an axis of evil” and claimed Iran was part of it. Today, we have a new chance to turn the page. It is a crucial issue for West Asia, now that American hostility to Iran has helped to turn Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states into an anti-Iranian alliance of Sunnis versus Shias. Because of this tensions and its conversion into a proxy war, sectarianism is destroying Syria and re-emerging with lethal force in Iraq. In the wake of Rouhani’s victory, the first thing Obama should do is to drop US objections to letting Iran attend the proposed Geneva conference on Syria. If Washington is ready to negotiate with Iran on nuclear issues, it makes no sense to exclude it from the talks on Syria. The second thing is to accelerate preparations for the conference itself by putting sustained pressure on Syria’s rebel forces to come up with a negotiating strategy and take part.
For Washington to change course would send an important signal, not only that Iran has to be part of any solution in Syria and the region, but also that the anti-Iranian cancer that has affected American policy in West Asia since the axis-of-evil speech has at last been excised.