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The start of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency with his swearing-in on Aug. 4 will enhance prospects for at least a modest improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, though attaining a breakthrough deal on Iran’s nuclear programs will remain very difficult.

The Rouhani Presidency: Will Iran-U.S. Relations Improve?

Rouhani, a pro-reform centrist in the Iranian context, will replace the arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who through two terms built his presidency on blustering confrontation with the United States and much of the West. Bettering Ahmadinejad’s record—a pattern of deepening isolation abroad and a shrinking economy at home—is not a high hurdle to clear. His departure alone should help matters.

The stakes in Rouhani’s presidency are indeed high. As USIP Iran expert Robin Wright wrote this week in "The Iran Primer": “One of the most important questions in the Middle East this year is whether Hassan Rouhani's election will mark a new era—both for Iranians and the outside world. The answer could mean the difference between peace and yet another war.”

Cautious hope is in order. The surprise winner of a June 14 election, Rouhani has been making comments in recent weeks that strengthen the view that he wants to ease both Iran’s estrangement from the West and the repressive, hard-line approach to domestic affairs that has held sway in recent years. He is coming to power with the support of many moderates and young people, sectors that were appalled by a violent crackdown four years ago following Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory in the presidential polls.

Rouhani, a Shiite cleric who has held key policy posts, including as chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, in June called U.S.-Iranian ties “a very old wound” and said “we need to think about how to heal this injury.” He suggested that Iran could show greater transparency to the international community on its nuclear efforts, including “ways of building confidence.” He has expressed a desire for “mutual relaxation of tensions” with other countries and touted “moderation in foreign policy” as an “effective and constructive” way of interacting abroad.

He has criticized Iranian government statistics on its sagging economy as misleading, implying that officials have soft-pedaled the high levels of inflation and unemployment. He has urged government to step back from interfering in Iranians’ private lives and to expand access to the Internet. And he has chided Iran’s state media for avoiding frank reporting on Iran’s problems, tweeting that “when [state broadcaster] IRIB airs the birth of a panda in China but nothing about unpaid workers protesting, it is obvious that the people and youth will ignore it.”

He has also said he intends to lead a new government that will “operate in the framework of moderation” and bring in cabinet members from all of the country’s factions. News reports this week—still to be confirmed—suggest that technocrats on the economy will be joining his Cabinet, as will former Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Javad Zarif as foreign minister. An American-educated diplomat who lived in the United States for years and speaks fluent English, Zarif made unusually wide contact with the American foreign policy community, winning praise as a good-humored and able interlocutor, as Wright, then with The Washington Post, noted in a 2007 article.

Yet it would be easy to expect too much from Rouhani in the short run. He is a loyalist who appears intent on making the Islamic Republic’s system less extreme, more rational and more humane, not upending the system. He has thrived as an insider who, by all accounts, has the confidence of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, having served as Khamenei’s personal representative on Iran’s National Security Council. It is Khamenei who has the final say on foreign policy and military matters, though, in practice, his power is not unlimited in Iran’s complex politics, and countervailing pressures and deal-making often play a role in decisions.

Rouhani also will face constraints from conservatives. They dominate the Majlis, or Parliament, and they are likely to block some of Rouhani’s moves if they feel he is stepping on their core interests in the economy or security matters. Conservative forces, though weakened by a public backlash to Ahmadinejad’s presidency and shocked by their election setback, can be counted on to regroup and try to restrain Rouhani if they believe they are losing a lot of ground. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a pillar of the state and of conservative politics, remains the best organized and funded part of Iran’s political spectrum; it will be heard from again.

With the support of impatient reformers and youth who have been marginalized, as well as some conservatives hoping for a stronger economy, he will be under constant pressure to avoid alienating either side. As USIP Senior Program Officer and Middle East politics specialist Daniel Brumberg observed at a July 15 Institute forum, Rouhani “has got to keep faith with at least two constituencies.” 

Brumberg believes that Rouhani will need to move carefully so as not to thoroughly alienate the hardliners. Executing such a balancing act will slow political change, but it will also increase prospects for such changes to stick. Rouhani’s personal ties to the Supreme Leader are probably an asset, one that an earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, did not have.

Rouhani seems likely to continue Iran’s rejection of the West’s core demand on the nuclear front—to stop producing nuclear fuel. He vows not to halt enrichment of nuclear fuel that could either be used to generate power or, if further enriched, help build a future nuclear arsenal, as feared in much of the Middle East and the West.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Rouhani once accepted a temporary suspension of fuel enrichment. But he appears to have ruled out a permanent suspension when he said, “The future government will defend the rights of the Iranian people. We will never dispense with that.” Still, he has put forward the possibility of confidence-building measures “if we see goodwill.” And he adds: “There is a fresh opportunity for interaction on the global level.”

Brumberg has described this moment as “a window of opportunity that has opened up.” In the United States and Europe, skepticism runs deep. Years of mounting sanctions by the U.S., European countries and the United Nations have not discernibly changed Iran’s approach to negotiations.

President Barack Obama has held out the hope for “a more serious, substantive” interaction with Iran, but he has also indicated he has no intention of removing any sanctions before Tehran shows it is ready to compromise. The new moment of opportunity may be narrow—and quite perishable—but the United States and others are likely to probe its possibilities soon after Rouhani takes office.

Further resources:

Thomas Omestad is a senior writer at USIP.

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