The result of last Friday’s presidential election in Iran was unexpected in two ways: first, that the cleric Hassan Rohani, and not a candidate closer to Supreme Leader Khamenei, emerged victorious; and second that he gathered more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of voting. With five other candidates in the running, this amounted to a landslide. Hope is high in Washington and European capitals that some of Rohani’s comments during the campaign—arguing that it is time that nuclear negotiations are handled by someone “with an understanding of diplomacy”—mean that Iran might prove more willing to make concessions on its nuclear program. But given how surprised Western analysts were by Rohani’s election in the first place, it is important to keep in mind how opaque the Iranian political system, and its motivations, remains. In particular, policymakers should take caution to avoid two potential missteps: one analytic, the other tactical.
First, we should be wary of assuming that the primary lens through which Iran—its nuclear program—is the same one driving its domestic politics. In fact, there is good reason to believe that Rohani’s victory should be construed first and foremost as a political backlash against fraud that marked the 2009 election and the subsequent violent suppression of the Green Movement that formed to protest of those results. This time around, with no real reformist candidates to vote for and with strict government control over all forms of political expression, analysts predicted that Iranians would stay home. However, Iranians decided that voting, rather than boycotting the election, was a better expression of their political frustration and dissatisfaction. Thus, the extremely high turnout (roughly 73 percent, compared to 57 percent in the last U.S. election) was primary meant to serve as a repudiation of Iran’s totalitarian system. Moreover, voters’ choosing Rohani seemed primarily driven by his appearance as the candidate, among the few that were allowed to run, least favored by the Supreme Leader. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and reformist favorite who was barred from running in this election, endorsed Rohani at the last minute. His action helped to unify those opposing the current regime.
To the extent that voters did vote based on issues, however, they appear to have been motivated primarily by domestic issues: personal freedoms and economic stagnation. In the four years since the last presidential election and the crackdown on the Green Movement, Iranians have seen an erosion in the already few liberties allowed in the Islamic Republic Moreover, the economic situation has grown markedly worse, due in large part to the United States’ and European Union’s strict sanctions. Rohani’s election marks Iranians’ hope for reprieve in both these areas, not an expression of popular willingness to cede to international demands on its nuclear program. Of course, to the extent that Iran’s economy is indirectly tied to its nuclear intransigence via sanctions, Iranians’ demand for better living conditions might lead the regime to the negotiating table. But no one should assume that Rohani has received a popular mandate to break the nuclear stalemate.
Secondly, even if Rohani’s election marks a new Iranian willingness to negotiate, policymakers should be wary of assuming that it is sincere. Rohani, after all, has been Iran’s nuclear negotiator before. He oversaw a suspension of Iran’s nuclear program and round of negotiations with the EU in 2003 that was motivated by the fear that Iran might be the next target of U.S. military-led regime change. But rather than a true cessation of its nuclear activities, this seeming diplomatic opening was shrewdly used by Iran to further its program. As Rohani boasted in a 2004 speech: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan. . . . in fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” Policymakers must thus be careful they not fall for another Iranian ploy: engaging in drawn-out negotiations while Iran completes yet another important phase in its nuclear program. A regular, credible assessment of Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capability—as recommended last year by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Iran Task Force—would help guard against such an Iranian attempt to run out the clock.
In this post-election period, U.S. policymakers should keep an eye on what matters most to U.S. national security: Iran’s approaching the point when its nuclear capability is a fait accompli. They should also remain skeptical that the results of Iran’s presidential election will bring meaningful change. By assuming the proper perspective, policymakers can steer a course that takes the diplomatic advantage out of this critical moment without jeopardizing the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.
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