Iran Nuclear Program: Will Hassan Rohani Rein It In Or Expand It?


The new president-elect of Iran, Hassan Rohani, pledged Monday to follow a "path of moderation" in dealings at home and abroad, including greater transparency over the Iranian nuclear program. The only moderate in the Iranian election, Rohani brings optimism for an easing in the international tension caused by the Iranian nuclear program. Having run on a platform of fixing the economy, there is reason for hope that he will trade transparency for an easing of international sanction.

"We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries," he said. "We have to build trust … The issue of relations between Iran and America is a complicated and difficult issue," Rohani continued. "It is an old wound that needs to be ... healed." Rohani did however warn the the United States must recognize Iran's nuclear rights as a condition for direct talks: "Centrifuges should spin, but so should industries and people's livelihoods."

Despite this precondition, there is reason to believe Rohani's intentions are fair. Former British foreign secretary Jack Straw called Rohani a "very experienced diplomat and politician" who was "tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief." As the lead nuclear negotiator, Rohani even suspended uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005 despite calls of treason. "I have always been against radicalism. I have always followed moderation," he says. "I have never acted as if in a garrison."

Further, with a campaign focused of saving Iran's economy, Rohani knows that nuclear reconciliation will be a prerequisite for an end to sanctions that have caused inflation to spike by more than 30%.

"The first step will be showing greater transparency. We are ready to show greater transparency and make clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran's actions are totally within international frameworks," Rohani said. "The second step is promoting mutual confidence. We'll take measures in both fields. The first step is that no new sanctions are imposed. Then, the (existing) sanctions are reduced."

Washington's cautious optimism, therefore, is not unwarranted. However, the United States should not expect Iran to make major concessions up front. Rohani's 2003 suspension of enrichment dealt a serious blow to his reputation, so much so that it would be foolish to expect him to make any concessions as a move of good faith. Washington needs to switch from a strategy of pressure and sanction to one of incentives to incentivise further moderation.

In order to outperform his radical predecessor, Rohani will need to secure real sanctions relief and a promise of recognition of Iran's right to enrichment — and the U.S. should accept. Foreign Policy's Vali Nasr has suggested the framework for a possible deal: "At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5%, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports."

While the ruling clerics and powerful Revolutionary Guard will largely restrict Rohani, his landslide victory and long history of conciliatory politics provides him with a strong power base. When Ruhani enters office in August, the West will breathe a breath of fresh air as his combative predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves office. But this moderate shift in Iranian politics is not regime change, but is still a game-changer… an immense opportunity for the U.S. that should not, and cannot, be overlooked.