SPEAKING FREELY Iran reforms depend on Supreme Leader
By Hamza Mannan
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khameini officially endorsed Hassan Rouhani as the seventh president of Iran on August 4, shutting the gates on the controversy-ridden presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani was elected in a landslide victory, following the disqualification of the majority of candidates by the Guardian Council, including former president Akbar Rafsanjani. The newly endorsed president has much on his plate, including fulfilling his
promises of a "path to moderation" and greater transparency over the nuclear program.
Iran today remains kneecapped due to crippling sanctions imposed by Western states, which hope to use carrots and sticks with carrots to come, of course, after some nod at rapprochement from Iran that hints it will submit to giving up its nuclear ambitions. With inflation rates reaching 45% this month, signs of widespread unemployment and declining oil exports, there are signals that Iran will return to the negotiation table sooner rather than later.
Rouhani has selected Mohammad Javad Zarif, a career diplomat who earned his doctorate from the University of Denver before assuming the post of ambassador to the United Nations, to head up the foreign ministry.
A senior Western diplomat who has experience with Zarif was quoted in the Huffington Post as having said that Zarif "was always trying to do what was possible to improve relations in a very intelligent, open and clear way". In other words, Rohani's selection would be a clear message to the West of Iran's desire to give the negotiation process a kickstart.
Insiders also note that Rouhani has pledged to nominate hardliners to other ministries within his cabinet, thereby assuring loyalty on all sides of the divide.
This should be seen as a positive development, insofar as the nominations point towards confidence building among the various factions of Iran's political spectrum. The caveat in this case is that these nominations will have to be confirmed by the Ayatollah. The buck doesn't just stop with Rouhani's cabinet selection.
Meanwhile, in Washington a letter sent to President Barack Obama by 29 former diplomats, military commanders and security analysts reminded the president of the fact that Rouhani's election means another opening for diplomacy with Iran, something which should not be forsaken.
In another recent development, 128 members (and counting) of the House of Representatives signed a letter requesting President Obama seize an opportunity to "reinvigorate US efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement".
To add to an already compelling case for pressing the restart button on an agreement, Rouhani made the most assured claim during his first press conference as president, stating that he was "seriously determined" to see "serious and substantive" negotiations.
All sides are in one way or another signaling their intent to return to the bargaining table, in order to draft some measure of settlement which will both relieve Iran of the tight grip of sanctions, while also coming to some form of agreement on the nuclear end of the deal.
Tara Miller, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, also agreed to the idea of rejuvenating talks, if only to prevent a conflict in the future. Citing her own research which surveyed over 100 instances of US imposed sanctions, she writes for Al-Jazeera that "diplomatic engagement makes sanctions more effective," continuing to note that when the United States has closed an embassy in a sanction targeted country, "the probability that sanctions will fail increases to 73% from 42%."
In spite of warnings from diplomats, however, the United States Congress also passed a bill further tightening sanctions, effectively closing the valve on oil exports.
Critics of such decisions argue that at a time when Rouhani should be given as much comfort room to operate as possible, these unnecessary punitive measures only fray relations more than needed. Such critics add that Rouhani's reformist credentials should be tested before the noose is further tightened. Both of these claims merit attention.
While Rouhani may be an insider with deep and longstanding ties to the Ayatollah, we should always see electoral shifts in the context of broader geopolitical events in the region. It's easy to assert the primacy of the Supreme Leader in controlling the levers of power as well as Rouhani's constitutionally limited powers. What is harder to understand and predict, to a large extent is the rationality that governs the actions of the Ayatollah. He too sees the protests of the Arab world in the context of his own tenure, which means an opportunity for a settlement is as ripe as ever, not least because of Rouhani's victory on a platform of moderation.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Hamza Mannan is a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara whose research interests lie at the intersection of urbanization and ethnic politics in Pakistan. He has previously written for The Express Tribune and The International News.