Last Friday, Hassan Rouhani won a landslide victory in the race to become president of Iran, taking more than fifty percent of the vote against five other candidates and obviating the need for a runoff. From America’s perspective, this was the best possible outcome. Rouhani, who had served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator under the moderate President Mohammad Khatami, crushed the more strident Saeed Jalili, who has served in a similar role under Ahmadinejad.
Further, the outcome was a surprise. For much of the campaign, the expected favorite was hard-right candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Observers wondered if Rouhani might be disqualified, and just one week ago the editorial board of the Washington Post confidently predicted Rouhani “will not be allowed to win”. From the perspective of the most extreme elements of Iran’s regime, this result is a frightening disappointment. From the perspective of Washington, it is definitely encouraging.
But just how encouraging? The closest historical parallel, America’s experience dealing with Khatami’s presidency from 1997 to 2005, is sobering. It is also instructive.
America was delighted by Khatami’s election, and President Clinton was “keen to help Khatami succeed,” as his former advisor Martin Indyk puts it. Similarly, Obama welcomed Rouhani’s victory this week with “cautious optimism” that “we may be able to move forward on a dialogue.”
Like Rouhani’s recent statements weighing dialogue with the US, Khatami’s rhetoric on terrorism, the two-state solution, and coexistence with America was extraordinarily encouraging. But in the end it led nowhere. America’s greatest concerns about Iranian behavior are in the security realm, and Iran’s president has typically been a weak actor in this sector, intimidated by the country’s supreme leader.
Part of the challenge with improving US–Iran relations involves a problem of sequencing. Optimists in both countries are reluctant to take on too much political risk making overtures toward each other, and neither side wants to take the first step. The logical formula in this regard is for the United States to grant Iran sanctions relief in exchange for changes in Iranian behavior, but neither side trusts that the other country will follow through.
Further, since each side believes it is the aggrieved party, it argues that the other country should be the one to act first. The US was ready to lift sanctions on Iran if Khatami could demonstrate the ability and will to moderate Iran’s threatening policies, while Iran claimed it was ready to change these policies only after the United States rolled back its extensive sanctions regime. In the end, neither side did much.
One way of overcoming this impasse is to improve coordination among sympathetic leaders. Clinton tried to do this by opening a direct channel to Khatami, raising the idea through intermediaries such as the Swiss in 1997, the Saudis in 1998, and the Omanis in 1999. However, Khatami never offered a substantive response to any of these requests. If Rouhani really wants to improve ties with the United States, he would be well-advised to respond when Washington takes these sorts of actions.
Despite the fact that their careers followed different trajectories to the presidency, Rouhani’s record does not suggest that he is going to be much bolder than Khatami in this regard. Khatami had little experience on national security issues and was reluctant to challenge Iran’s supreme leader. Rouhani has much more experience in this sector, having previously served as the head of Iran’s national security council for sixteen years, but his low-key style suggests he may be just as reluctant as Khatami to rattle the supreme leader with this sort of step.
The US also tried taking unilateral confidence-building measures during Khatami’s administration that elicited little in the way of substantive policy responses. Iranian leaders suggested that they would respond positively if the US lifted sanctions on carpets, food products, and airplane parts but did not react after Washington actually did so in March of 2000. In fact, Rouhani himself devalued the change as “infinitesimal”; such a posture does little to encourage other gestures of good will.
Of course, the Clinton administration could also have done a better job with how it presented some of these gestures. For instance, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologized for America’s role in a 1953 coup against the government of Iran, the speech elicited some praise from Rouhani. However, he reacted more strongly to elements of the speech that he felt were objectionable for criticizing the structure of Iran’s regime. (Supreme Leader Khamenei dismissed Albright’s remarks entirely as “just another ploy” by the U.S. to undermine Iran).
Similarly, when Clinton sent a letter to Khatami via Oman’s foreign minister, one of the reasons Khatami reportedly struggled to respond was that he did not know how to handle the letter’s suggestion that Iran was responsible for a 1996 terrorist attack on US troops at Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Clinton’s advisers say they included the line to protect Clinton from domestic criticism, but in retrospect the move undermined America’s overall effort to engage and bolster Iranian moderates. When making genuine overtures of this sort, there is little room for covering one’s own behind.
Another option is to use side issues as a basis for building confidence between the US and Iran. The two countries were able to pursue surprisingly constructive cooperation over Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001. This cooperation was approved by both President Khatami and Supreme Leader Khamenei, and it even extended to constructive interactions between US officials and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps over how to stabilize Afghanistan’s new government.
However, cooperation fell apart after Bush listed Iran as a member of the axis of evil in his 2002 State of the Union speech. This example helps highlight how sidebar efforts at cooperation between the US and Iran face enormous obstacles to success. Political expediency and other areas of dispute make such efforts manageable to initiate but extremely difficult to widen or sustain. It is difficult to envision how piecemeal cooperation can be sustained in the midst of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, promotion of terrorism, and support for the wrong side in Syria’s nasty civil war.
Given that the Obama administration maintains that the time for diplomacy is not yet up, the crucial question may be whether the US should continue to pursue a confidence-building approach toward Iran that aims at limited agreements on the nuclear file or whether the time is right for a broader endgame proposal.
The Khatami experience should be especially instructive in this regard. Like a skeleton in the closet, the specter of Khobar hung over every effort by the Clinton administration to reach out to Khatami.
Thus, it may be easier to propose an endgame proposal on the nuclear file around the time of Rouhani’s inauguration in August than to wait much longer in hopes that confidence-building steps can improve the atmosphere for a deal. The longer Rouhani is in the job, the easier it becomes for skeptics to tie him to bad behavior by the regime, even if hard evidence is lacking.
There is one other reason working in favor of making a major proposal to end the Iranian nuclear standoff sooner rather than later: the election of Rouhani has made it tougher for the United States to engage in a military strike against the country’s nuclear program. Now, America’s allies will no doubt be less supportive of military action until they feel the US has put Rouhani’s purported moderation to the test.