War Stories

Rouhani’s Big Gamble

Iran’s president is squaring off against his country’s hard-liners. We better hope he succeeds.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani opens a two-day conference on combatting extremism on Dec. 9, 2014, in the Iranian capital of Tehran
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani opens a two-day conference on combatting extremism on Dec. 9, 2014, in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.

It didn’t receive much attention in the American press, but on Jan. 4, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave a speech of jaw-dropping boldness, calling for a more open, pragmatic diplomacy with the West, not just at the talks on Iran’s nuclear program—where he urged serious compromises—but across a wide range of issues.

Rouhani made his case so bluntly, and challenged his country’s hard-line factions so directly, that the speech will likely have one of two consequences—either the official adoption of his ideas, which would augur a dramatic change in Iranian politics, or the end of his career.

The nuclear talks served as the centerpiece of his speech, and rightly so. The future of Iran’s economy, and its place in the world, rides on the outcome of these talks. Success would mean that Iran agrees to slash its nuclear program, to the point where it would take a long, hard time to build an atomic bomb—and it would mean that the Western nations agree to pull back and eventually end the sanctions that have helped stall the Iranian economy.

The significance of Rouhani’s speech is that he not only accepts but emphatically welcomes the trade-off. “Our ideals are not bound to centrifuges,” he declared. In the nuclear talks, the Western nations, known as the P5+1 (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), are insisting that Iran cut its stockpile of centrifuges, the spinning paddles that enrich uranium. The hard-line factions in Iran—which include the Revolutionary Guards, much of the parliament, and perhaps the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have pushed for more centrifuges.

Rouhani now seems to be pushing back. At one point in the speech, he even proposed going around the power structures and putting the matter up for a vote in a referendum. “On a crucial matter that affects all of us and our livelihoods,” he said, “let’s ask people’s opinion directly, just for once.”

The proposal, or threat, was a bit of theater. Under the Iranian constitution, two-thirds of parliament must assent to placing any question on a referendum, and even after the people vote, the supreme leader can overrule the result if it isn’t to his liking.

Still, in speeches (and those who have dealt with him say he does this in private discussions, too), Rouhani frequently notes that the Iranian people elected him to make changes—and in Sunday’s speech, he slapped the popularity card on the table. The fact that he delivered this speech at an economics conference, attended by hundreds of businessmen—who have suffered keenly from the sanctions and who applauded his most dramatic statements—drove the point home harder.

Rouhani made clear that he sees the settlement of the nuclear talks, and the end of the sanctions, as the first step in rejoining the international community. “By God, by Lord,” he said, “it is impossible: The country cannot have sustained [economic] growth when isolated.”

He also rejected the idea that negotiations with other nations should be governed by passions or ideology—a key premise among hard-liners, who see the United States as the Great Satan and therefore deem any diplomatic discourse as courting evil. Though stressing that he wasn’t advocating a “retreat from our ideas and principles,” he noted that, in “today’s world, the main debate is about interest; every country is after its own interest. Threats, opportunities, and mutual interests, or specific interests—these are the basis of foreign policy.”

Rouhani is taking an enormous gamble with this speech. In September 2013, when Rouhani made his historic overture toward nuclear diplomacy at the U.N. General Assembly, he said that Ayatollah Khamenei—whose title, the supreme leader, is taken literally in Iranian law and politics—had given him leeway to start negotiations. But no one has claimed that he gave Rouhani the power to approve the terms of an agreement.

The military and the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful and militant factions, have opposed any scaling back of Iran’s nuclear program, especially if it comes as the result of Western pressure. Khamenei’s own position is ambiguous. On the one hand, he has said repeatedly that Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons, calling them an affront to Islam. On the other hand, in the one speech where he addressed the P5+1 talks in any detail, he called for increasing its stockpile of centrifuges from 10,000 to 19,000—far beyond any reasonable requirement for peaceful energy.

Yet at the same time, Khamenei is said to be well aware of the disgruntlement among Iran’s businessmen, middle classes, and urban youth, who are highly literate and exposed to the world through the Internet and satellite TV. Permanent sanctions and isolation can’t help but exacerbate tensions and, in the long run, endanger his regime.

But much depends on how Khamenei defines “the long run.” For ending the sanctions and the isolation could endanger his regime as well. He and his councils of mullahs justify their rigid rule and oppression by pointing to the threats from the West, especially the United States. If all of a sudden the Iranian and American presidents start signing diplomatic accords (and these accords could pass only with the supreme leader’s blessings), how could he keep railing against the Great Satan? On what rationale could he keep oppressing domestic dissidents? What legitimacy could his regime continue to claim? As Mikhail Gorbachev learned, reform is a particularly dicey proposition for an authoritarian government—all the more so for a theocratic one.

Meanwhile, it’s best for politicians in our own country to take Rouhani at his word, on at least one point: A rational foreign policy is defined by a nation’s interests, and we have a profound and urgent interest in preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons. We also have an intriguing, long-term interest in seeing Iran evolve into a less insular, more pragmatic regional power—which the achievement of a nuclear accord can help to bring about.

For all the blather from neoconservatives, the interim agreement reached at the P-5+1 talks, in November 2013, has been a remarkably good deal: In exchange for freeing up a small portion of its frozen assets, Iran cut back some of its nuclear program, halted the rest, and gave Western inspectors freer run of its facilities. The seven-month extension of the accord, at the end of 2014, is also clearly preferable to the alternative.

But the next six months (the extension expires July 1) are crucial, for the fate of both the nuclear talks and Rouhani’s broader ambitions, and the leaders of the new Republican Congress should refrain from their natural temptation to screw it all up. Ignore the lobbyists who pressure and plead for the resumption and redoubling of sanctions now; like the Iranian mullahs, they fear the accord’s success much more than they fear its failure. Success is far from certain; there are still serious substantive disputes to hammer out. But we are on the cusp of truly historic possibilities, and it would be tragic not to give that a chance.