Originally Published 2013-07-05 00:00:00 Published on Jul 05, 2013
Though Dr. Hassan Rouhani is labelled as a 'pragmatist', 'moderate', or even a 'reformist' by analysts, all these terms have very restrictive meanings in the Iranian context.
Will Rouhani be able to break the nuclear deadlock?
The victory of Dr. Hassan Rouhani brings an air of refreshing change to the political structure and dynamics within Iran, besides sending some positive signals to the region and the West. Though he is labelled as a 'pragmatist', 'moderate', or even a 'reformist' by analysts, all these terms have very restrictive meanings in the Iranian context.

Hassan Rouhani was the Secretary of the National Security Council for the entire period of Presidencies of the 'pragmatist' Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the 'reformist' Mohammed Khatami (1989 to 2005). Coming as he does from such a political heritage, he is clearly identified as belonging not only to their camps but also to that stream of thought. And both his mentors, Rafsanjani and Khatami, swung their support to ensure his election.

Nevertheless, a reformist in the Iranian context does not overthrow the existing 'rule of clerics' and replace it with liberal democracy. Every President has to work within the Velayat-e-Faqih (the rule of Clerics) and obey the Supreme Leader. And Dr. Hassan Fereydun (a religious cleric who took the name Rouhani to emphasise his religiosity or spirituality) would be the most unlikely President to challenge that rule.

Yet Dr. Rouhani brings a change, not only by re-instating the sophisticated political, intellectual and social elite of Tehran back into the driver's seat, to whom his predecessor was a constant embarrassment, but also by assuring the clerics that he is one of them.

Dr. Rouhani's handling of the immediate neighbours as well as of the West would be markedly different and is unlikely to be marred by the kind of polemics that marked Ahmedinejad's tenure. In his inaugural press conference, he characterised Iran's relations with the US as a festering "wound that needs to be healed". There is a clear desire for rapprochement in the choice of his words. This has been promptly reciprocated by a senior American diplomat, Ryan Crocker, an old Iran hand who has been negotiating with Iranian leaders through the backchannel for quite some time. Crocker, who has recently authored a report for the 'Iran Project', has called for 'comprehensive engagement and wide raging talks' between the US and Iran.

On the all-important nuclear issue, Dr. Rouhani's perceptive remark made, during the campaign "that it is good to run the centrifuges, but it is equally important to keep the people's lives running" seems to indicate a decisive departure. The point, however, is whether he would be able to restore the primacy of people's lives over the nuclear programme. Would he be able to influence the Supreme Leader to offer the kind of concessions he once made to the IAEA and the EU-3, under the same Supreme Leader in October 2003? That landmark episode in Iran's contemporary history has been well documented by the former DG, IAEA, Dr. El-Baradei in his book 'The Age of Deception'.

Tired of all the obfuscation, concealment and half- truths on Iran's nuclear programme, Dr. El-Baradei decided to go to Tehran, on 16th October 2003, for a meeting with its Chief nuclear negotiator, Dr. Hassan Rouhani. He says "the encounter was pivotal?. the pattern of deception and backtracking, I told him, could not go on". El-Baradei adds "Rouhani came to the meeting prepared. Without directly apologising for past concealment and deception, he said that Iran was ready to turn over a new leaf in its relationship with the Agency". Rouhani then agreed to provide the Agency with a full disclosure of Iran's past and present nuclear activities within a week. He further told him that Iran was ready to conclude an Additional Protocol that would put all its declared nuclear sites under intrusive inspections at short notice.

On 21st October 2003, Rouhani agreed with the EU-3 (France, Germany and the UK) Foreign Ministers and issued the famous Tehran Declaration, which committed Iran to provide 'objective guarantees' about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, in return for which the EU-3 agreed to recognise Iran's nuclear rights. Rouhani's decision to agree to IAEA's terms prevented Iran dossier being referred to the UNSC and delayed the imposition of sanctions.

Dr. El-Baradei mentions of another equally important initiative of Iran that is hardly in public domain. In September 2004, when he went to Washington for a meeting with President George Bush, he "carried a written message from Hassan Rouhani, on behalf of the Iranian regime, saying that Iran was ready to enter into dialogue with the US on all issues, including both Iran's nuclear programme and broad matters of regional security. The message was on a single sheet of paper, without a letterhead or signature" and he handed the note to President Bush explaining its origin. Bush responded "I'd like to talk leader to leader, but I am not sure that Iran is ready to engage. I think he (referring to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is bent on the destruction of Israel". With that mind-set at the highest levels in Washington, there were hardly any takers for the message from Hassan Rouhani.

On the nuclear programme, Hassan Rouhani had achieved a breakthrough, no doubt, with the blessings of the Supreme Leader, but the hardliners within Iran called the Tehran Declaration and the subsequent Paris Agreement 'a sell-out to the West and an act of treason'. The Majlis refused to ratify the agreement. The agreement collapsed within two years, since the Europeans, as El-Baradei points out, failed to keep their side of the promise and Iranian leadership under pressure of the hardliners, broke open the IAEA seals and re-commenced their uranium enrichment programme.

The clock had been set back, irreversibly. But the hardliners neither managed to acquire the nuclear weapon, nor avoid the sanctions, that are getting harsher every year and have crippled the economy and are hurting the people. Will Dr. Rouhani, now as President, pick up the threads where he left and guide the tortuous process of negotiating with the West, so as to keep "both the centrifuges and the people´s lives running"?

(The writer is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Anjali Birla

Anjali Birla

Anjali Birla is an Indian Civil Services Officer(Batch 2020) working in the Ministry of Railways and has done her graduation in Political Science from Delhi ...

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