Rouhani Roulette

Offering up an encouraging development to Taylor Carey’s late September article on Iran’s Twitter diplomacy, talks between the US and Iran intensified on 27 September when US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shared a phone call marking the first direct communication between leaders of the two states since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Although the two elected leaders seem genuine in their eagerness to negotiate, Obama having put Iran’s nuclear program on the agenda during his 2008 campaign and Rouhani having campaigned a decrease in sanctions and an increase in global outreach in 2009, hardliners in both states have unduly responded with much scepticism regarding the sincerity of new diplomatic efforts on either side.

Image courtesy of, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Understanding the authenticity of the talks requires some context. The Obama administration has pushed for heavier sanctions on Iran as a coercive diplomacy tool aimed at pushing Iran into discussing or eliminating any nuclear weapons programs the state has in operation. The idea was to threaten Iran with the gradual deterioration of its economy and political structure that would follow, and use easing of sanctions as a reward for cooperation. In fact, Congress was gearing up for a hearing on further sanctions on Iran, proposed on 18 June, until plans for negotiations in Geneva with the P5+1 members of the UN were announced.

Many actors, particularly the hardliners, including Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and Senators John McCain and Chuck Schumer, see Iran’s cry to the West as a sign that the sanctions are working and that further action should only take place in the form of further coercion or heavier sanctions without regards to the new diplomatic efforts. The argument is that Iran is not to be trusted, but there are several reasons why this view might be wrong. The point of the sanctions was in fact to open dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program, so it makes little sense to seek further coercion. In fact, seeking additional sanctions at this point may provoke a backlash in Iran, where a negative response towards efforts in cooperation could have drastic effects on the image of the United States and the goodwill of not only the Iranian people, but also the government.

Iran’s outreach also has serious domestic backing, as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, validates the move. Rouhani was, in fact, elected and reached out to the West only with the blessings of the Supreme Leader, and there are good reasons for why Rouhani is in the Supreme Leader’s favour. For one thing, Rouhani is a member of clergy himself and poses little threat to the political structure of Iran, which emphasises the primacy of the Supreme Leader. Secondly, whilst he did not pose too drastic of a threat to Iran’s constitution, both traditionalists and the general population welcomed his departure from Ahmadinejad’s neglect of the Iranian economy and the welfare of the Iranian people. As Suzanne Maloney observes in Foreign Affairs, for these reasons, Rouhani actually benefited from a broader base of support than any other leader in post-Revolution history. The Supreme Leader is able to address pressing political issues within the Islamic Republic without threatening its existence through Rouhani, even though hardliners exist in Iran as well. With Khameini and Rouhani on the same page, it is safe to put some faith into Iran’s recent negotiations, which come about as a result of the heavy sanctions facing the country.

As the P5+1 decides what it may be able to offer Iran in exchange for shutting off its nuclear program, both countries gear up for negotiations that will need to strike a very delicate balance in the face of heavy opposition.

The coercive strategy of sanctions has worked up until now precisely for the reason that the sanctions have not reached a stage where political turmoil has occurred as a result. Hardliners want to pass measures that further deepen the hole that Iran finds itself in, but this has many more negative consequences than can be afforded. Too much pressure and sanctions will render Iran voiceless and have a potential backlash; too little pressure however and Iran will have a temporary leverage, but the economic pressures are very real. The state is suffering in a conservative estimate from a nearly 20% unemployment rate and, as Thomas Erdbrink reported for the New York Times, “sanctions have more than halved Iran’s oil sales, from 2.4 million barrels a day in 2011 to less than 1 million now; inflation has spiked; the currency, the rial, has fallen by half.” Pressure in the form of further sanctions is also on its own a precarious matter, as targeting oil becomes tougher to justify. Global supply is already falling short, as production outages in Libya, Iraq and Nigeria, according to Reuters’ Timothy Gardner, have cut about 3.5% of global demand from the market. Further decreasing global supply could lead to greater instability, which complicates sanctions as an option.

With this context in mind, the sincerity of the US and Iran in their negotiations becomes clearer. Both countries’ leaders finally find themselves in a position where their mutual interests align and understand what hardliners fail to realise: there is much to be gained from this strategic relationship. For the US, this could take shape in the form of increased pressure on Syria and perhaps even an easing of relations with Venezuela, as well a boost to the global economy through a driving down of oil prices, if an easing of sanctions were to take place. For Iran, this could spell the end of a decade of isolation and hardship for the Iranian people. Although negotiations may be difficult to get moving, hopefully the US and Iran will still find a way to take advantage of this rare opportunity in timing and interest, whilst navigating around and addressing hardliner sentiment.