Rouhani's Post-Populist Foreign Policy

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Hassan Rouhani's inauguration on August 4 in the presence of dozens of foreign dignitaries, including several presidents from the neighboring countries, heralds a new "post-populist" era in domestic and foreign policy-making in Iran facing serious domestic and external challenges. The country's new president is committed to replacing his predecessor's populist style with a calm approach centered on rationality and prudence, yet inherits a wealth of multi-faceted problems that require time and skillful diplomacy to tackle, the sooner, the better.

Rouhani's "government of moderation" will likely include several cabinet ministers known for their political moderation, even though it will fall short of a "coalition government" encompassing politicians from the reformist camp, as initially expected. Rather, this will be a centerist government that will seek to rule by consensus in a political environment still dominated by the hardline Principalists (osool-garayan) who are in control of the Parliament and the Judiciary and defer to the guidance of the Supreme Leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei, who is the final arbiter of important national policies.

Having won the (competitive) race with an absolute majority in the first round, Rouhani's key advantage, other than being a seasoned insider politician, is his popular mandate for change that will likely result in an extended period of "political honeymoon" lasting approximately one and a half year to two years. Fully cognizant of the importance of quick relief for the struggling economy, Rouhani has promised to deliver some of the goods during the first 100 days in office, optimistically predicting a near future success in reducing the (impact of) sanctions currently crippling the Iranian economy.

At the same time, concerned about maintaining the system's "social compact" that has been its signature popular support, Rouhani has pledged to continue the government's subsidies, massive housing projects, and the like. At this point it is unclear whether or not he will discontinue his predecessor Mahmud Ahmadinejad's pro-poor cash hand-outs. What is clear, however, is his determination over Iran's foreign and even nuclear policies, which hold the key to resolving internal economic problems, given the severity of sanctions.

Rouhani's nuclear dilemma

The nub of Rouhani's nuclear dilemma is how to bring the US-led international coalition against Iran to a "yes" on Iran's extensive uranium enrichment program without making undue, substantial compromises. Rouhani has repeatedly dismissed the idea of suspending Iran's enrichment program, just as he did for over two years in 2004-2005 when he led's Iran's nuclear negotiation strategy, insisting that that "era is past" and the West must respect Iran's "red line."

Yet, there is no sign that Western governments led by the US are willing to do so. Flanked by various think tanks raising the level of alarm about Iran's "critical breakout capability" in a year or so, the Western governments would require a cognitive and paradigmatic shift away from their present perception of a "nuclearizing Iran" before they relent on some of their coercive tactics vis-a-vis Iran.

Not only that, the Iran nuclear crisis is in certain sense a "functional crisis" serving multiple Western and Israeli interests, such as translating into huge arms sales and sale of nuclear technology to Iran's rich Arab neighbors, and therefore it is simplistic to expect these powers addicted to exploiting the nuclear crisis to simply give up the game as long as they do not incur much costs.

Indeed, one reason why the US policy-makers have no qualm about dishing out more sanctions without hesitation is that they lead a one-way process that does not yield any perceived backlash from the other end. US lawmakers in particular have wasted no time in slapping Iran with new sanctions, convinced that the presidential election was a referendum on the nuclear policy and that Rouhani is bound to show more flexibility than his predecessor. The US politicians take as their logic that more pressure will increase the likelihood of better results at the negotiation table. This "compellence strategy" is in full swing nowadays, with virtually no sign of any potential re-direction in the proximate future.

As a result, the Iranian counterstrategy - of offering enhanced nuclear transparency, increasing cooperation with the UN atomic agency, allowing greater inspector access to Iran's nuclear and non-nuclear facilities, and foregoing the 20% enrichment in favor of a low ceiling that would in turn boost the international confidence in Iran's civilian program - does not seem sufficient from the Western and Israeli point of view.

Anything beyond those offers in his counterstrategy is politically risky for Rouhani and unlikely to receive parliamentary approval. There is no dearth of Tehran politicians who claim that Rouhani was "too soft" in past negotiations, and this actually serves as a minor handicap limiting what compromises Rouhani can make on the nuclear front. According to some Tehran pundits, bringing the US to "yes" with Iran requires more than merely persuasive diplomacy; it must include a mix of playing hard-ball with America and applying soft-power tactics. This is simply because the Americans in particular know only the language of power and must be made aware of the certain "sunk costs" of their coercive diplomacy toward Iran. However Rouhani has clearly stated his preference for a moderate approach premised on the hope and expectation that soft power diplomacy will deliver the goods.

New regionalism

The road to Washington may go through Riyadh, Baghdad, and Doha through a new regionalist approach to nuclear problem-solving. US and Iran back the same political horses in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it is a given that Rouhani's foreign policy team, likely headed by the US-educated former Iran's envoy to UN, Javad Zarif, will try to enlarge the "zones of shared interests" with US in the coming months, thus shrinking the perception of "zero-sum" games between US and Iran in favor of "win-win" scenarios.

In terms of "new regionalism", much depends on Iran's ability to repair ties with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Rouhani, who boasts of signing a low security cooperation agreement with Riyadh, has prioritized the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, yet the question is are the Saudis willing to reciprocate? After all, the Saudis still refuse to fully recognize Iraq's new Shi'ite-dominated politics, continue their anti-Shi'ite mischief in Bahrain, and are today celebrating the regime change in Cairo (thanks in part to their generous support to the Egyptian coup-makers). It is therefore simplistic to regard Iran as solely responsible for the recent deterioration of bilateral relations, as some Tehran pundits such as Mahmoud Sariolghalam have erroneously indicated. A future improvement in Tehran-Riyadh relations requires that the Saudis meet Iran half way, and it remains to be seen if they are ready to do so.

Another aspect of "new regionalism" is the expansion of regional trade, particularly in the "ECO zone", encompassing the 10 member countries of the Economic Cooperation Organization. This includes Turkey, Pakistan, and the five Central Asian states, which altogether offer limited relief from the net of imposed sanctions, given the low inter-regional trade.

Consequently, Iran's past "look East" policy - that has resulted in Asian powers such as China and India becoming Iran's key trade partners - will most likely continue and, in light of the Western sanctions that prohibit the normalization of Iran-European Union relations, even deepen.

A big question concerns Russia and whether the present cozy relations between Tehran and Moscow will continue under Rouhani, who has a clear preference for a "look West" and yet is handicapped by the onslaught of sanctions. It now appears that the news of Vladimir Putin's impending visit to Tehran this month may have been premature and that Rouhani will meet the Russian president instead in September in Bishkek at the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Iran has observer status, its bids for membership having been rejected so far. Regardless, Iran and Russia have been moving closer on various geostrategic issues, such as Caspian Sea security or the future of Syria, and Iran seriously counts on Russia's support against any US and or Israeli plans to attack Iran in the future, which would undermine Russia's own security.

A potential down side of "new regionalism" is that it may come at the cost of Iran's extra-regional solidarity, such as with South and Central American nations that provided a backbone of international support for Iran during the Ahmadinejad era. But now, with the "globalist" Ahmadinejad replaced by a more "regionalist" Rouhani, the priority is shifting more toward Iran's immediate region, dominated as it is by a mostly hostile Arab world weary of Iran's rising regional clout.

How Rouhani can change the Arab calculus toward Iran without causing Iran's own national security calculus to rupture is not easy to answer. The danger of losing sight of international allies beyond the immediate horizon is that it may weaken Iran's defense vis-a-vis adversaries who openly contemplate attacking Iran. Iran's 'security dilemma' in fact consists of how to minimize the risks to Iran while pursuing its legitimate (nuclear and non-nuclear) interests.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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Source: Asia Times Online

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

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*New Dynamic in Iran's European Ties:

*Rouhani Leads Iran's New Soft Power:

 *These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.