Rouhani’s rise and implications for Iranian foreign policy and nuclear politics


By Ariane Tabatabai – Former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani was elected last week as Iran’s seventh president, succeeding one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Following the announcement of Rouhani’s election, the White House restated its readiness to hold bilateral talks with Tehran. Many Iranian and international observers welcomed Rouhani’s election as a new opportunity to build rapprochement with the Islamic Republic and ultimately solve the nuclear crisis. Others however argue that the ultimate nuclear decision-maker is not the president but the supreme leader, who also holds the reins of the country’s foreign policy. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indirectly confirmed this reality in Iranian foreign policy in a recent speech, where he asserted that he did not play a great role in nuclear decision-making. However, Ahmadinejad’s 2009 presidential campaign presented him as the champion of nuclear energy when he highlighted the country’s nuclear “progress” as one of his administration’s achievements. 




In light of what many see as a turning point in Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy, it is important to take a step back and review the events leading to the elections, as well as who the new president is, how the Iranian nuclear and foreign policy decision-making process functions, and what to expect of Rouhani’s personal approach to these crucial issues.


The 2013 elections


After the controversy of the contested 2009 presidential elections, the regime was under pressure to ensure those events would not be repeated. The regime’s main challenge in these elections was to restore its legitimacy, some of which it had lost after the elections.


Results in favor of a more conservative candidate were supposed to be published at 2:00 AM but were postponed until 7:00AM. According to insiders, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) wanted to engineer the results in favor of a more conservative candidate but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stepped in and did not allow it to happen. Khamenei also conceded to the electorate by acknowledging a faction in the population he typically does not recognize: regime opponents. Already, in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, many Iranians planned to boycott the next elections if the regime failed to free the Green Movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and recognize the result of the 2009 elections. It was not surprising that four years after letting the Basij and anti-riot police perpetrate attacks against those who dared to question the elections’ outcome Khamenei asked all Iranians, including regime opponents, to exercise their right to vote. This was a step away from the regime’s general discourse, in which the nation is portrayed as a single, unified entity, standing strongly behind its leadership. What is more, the regime generally does not distinguish its Islamic nature and the Iranian nation. In his speech prior to the elections, however, Khamenei stated that even “those who, for whatever reason, do not support the Islamic regime still want to support their country.”


In order to restore its legitimacy, the regime needed a high turnout, without conceding too much to the Green Movement. One way to achieve it was by allowing strong figures such as former reformist president Mohammad Khatami and Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to hold office. Another way is Rouhani’s election. It was the best possible outcome for the regime since it ensures the regime’s survival for another four years, while appeasing the population.


Who is Iran’s new president-elect?


Hassan Rouhani is an Iranian cleric, lawyer, and diplomat. Originally he was closer to the conservative faction until he began during Khatami’s presidency to collaborate with Rafsanjani and Khatami, a move which distanced him from the conservatives. Rafsanjani himself was considered more conservative until he became closely associated with the Green Movement in 2009. Rafsanjani and Khatami’s endorsement of Rouhani in the days leading to the elections and the withdrawal of the other reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, played a key role in getting Rouhani elected.


In addition to being the head of the Iranian parliament’s Defense and Security Committees, Rouhani also served as Rafsanjani’s senior advisor when Rafsanjani was Commander in Chief during the Iran-Iraq War. It is important to note that while Rouhani has enjoyed a good relationship with the Iranian military, this is not true for his relations with the IRGC, a paramilitary organization, which has been typically closer to the conservative faction.[1] However, Rouhani is best known in the nonproliferation circles in the West as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-2005, during Khatami’s presidency. In his first press conference as President-elect, Rouhani described what he had promoted as his “moderate approach” as one straying away from all extremism.[2]


Rouhani’s foreign and nuclear policy


During the 2013 presidential debates, Rouhani was more restrained in his critique of the current course of nuclear negotiations, unlike conservative candidate Aliakbar Valayati, who openly clashed with fellow conservative candidate Saeed Jalili, telling him that he did not understand the “art of diplomacy” and negotiations, and accusing him of taking an “all or nothing” approach instead of meeting the P5+1 halfway. Rouhani’s more conservative approach during the presidential debates highlighted different challenges in the nuclear dossier with a more neutral tone, not blaming the government or Jalili’s team directly, but rather stating that the nuclear issue had been sent to the Security Council unfairly and that “we should have stopped that,” urging the future government to make efforts to “send it back to the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] Board of Governors.” 


Rouhani’smemoirs, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, published in 2011 provide an excellent insight into the new Iranian president’s view of nuclear and of foreign policy. The former chief negotiator outlines at length what he sees as his country’s shortcomings and challenges in the realm of nuclear negotiations. The first challenge identified by Rouhani lies in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran’s (AEOI) “lack of legal and political information.”[3] To illustrate this point of lack of expertise, Rouhani uses the example of the head of the AEOI, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who believed that Iran could enrich under 20% lawfully without reporting it to the IAEA. The second challenge is the lack of consensus on diplomacy and foreign policy in the country.[4] Third, the challenge of a lack of “national consensus,” meaning the co-existence of two trends within the country, one supporting a “dialogue” with the international community, one opposing it, and the lack of a coherent “decision-making system,” leads to a confused political behavior.[5]


Fourth, Rouhani highlights the role of “regime’s opponents” in creating obstacles for the country’s foreign policy. Specifically, he describes the unveiling of Tehran’s activities at Natanz by the dissident group the Mujahedin-e Khalgh (MeK) as a key challenge to Iran’s nuclear policy, identifying the event as the beginning of the nuclear crisis.[6] However, the MeK’s role has only been limited to providing the West with intelligence of covert nuclear activities. Had Iran not failed to comply with its international obligations, the nuclear crisis would have been short-lived.


Lastly, both in his book and in a comprehensive interview with the Iranian monthly publication Mehrnameh in 2012, Rouhani highlights a key obstacle in Iranian policy-making, that of “political culture.” According to him, because there are no parties in Iran and due to the “political culture,” there is a lot of “chaos” and slogans influencing public opinion. He suggests strengthening political culture in order to put an end to this anarchy.


While Rouhani is likely to attempt addressing some of these shortcomings, he will be unable to fully repair the regime’s policymaking problems, as many of the challenges he identifies are either directly connected to the nature of the regime, symptomatic to many other regimes, out of the sphere of the President’s power, or unlikely to be addressed due to other issues.


Rouhani’s memoirs further provide evidence of the decisive role played by the Supreme Leader in nuclear decision-making. Indeed, Rouhani describes his private “yet determining” meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei on April 16, 2005, where the Leader had suggested beginning activities at the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. Thus, it was the Supreme Leader’s decision to put an end to the suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities.[7] Rouhani described his belief that waiting one or two years to resume enrichment would have solved many issues, clearly questioning Khamenei’s decision-making on the matter.[8] Yet, Rouhani’s description of his conversation with newly elected president Ahmadinejad that same year provides evidence that the role played by the president cannot be ignored. During this conversation, Ahmadinejad had showed a clear lack of understanding of the IAEA and his country’s international obligations. He had asked Rouhani whether a direct talk with IAEA Director General El-Baradei would solve Iran’s problem, suggested Iran funded the IAEA for an entire year, thus putting an end to its being a puppet of the West, and questioned the Agency’s authority to review Iran’s dossier.[9] Following this meeting, Rouhani was asked to “go rest” for a while and was replaced by Ali Larijani, now the speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran.[10] Hence, while the president’s input does not weigh as much as that of the supreme leader, it can play a stabilizing or destabilizing role in the country’s foreign and nuclear policy.


In a comprehensive interview with the Iranian monthly publication Mehrnameh in 2012, Rouhani was asked whether the idea of the Supreme Leader issuing a fatwa, prohibition of nuclear weapons, was his idea. Rouhani did not answer the question but noted that the fatwa had been issued during the Friday Prayer and suggested that its scope extended to “production, stockpiling, and use” of these weapons. He maintained his position that the “fatwa is more important than the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] (NPT).”[11] Rouhani explained that there were discussions around the idea of having a bill approve by the parliament, which would assure the international community that Iran would not leave the NPT. He also suggested that it was the Europeans’ suggestion to make the fatwa into a law, as a confidence building measure. According to Rouhani, his suggestion had been made only once and was not followed up. This idea was later promoted by the Foreign Ministry and became especially popular amongst Iranian officials, who saw the fatwa as a way of ensuring the international community that their country’s nuclear activities did not have a military dimension.


Bilateral Relations with the United States


In response to why Iran had not chosen to hold bilateral talks and negotiate directly with the United States, Rouhani suggested that this was “the regime’s decision.” In other words, this was dictated to the negotiating team from above. Rouhani famously stated that Iran had three solutions, a bicycle or the Non-Aligned Movement, a Peykan (an outdated Iranian car) or the Europeans, or a Mercedes or the United States.[12]  According to Rouhani, Iran chose the Peykan, thus clearly criticizing the “regime’s decision” in that respect. Rouhani further described his conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei, then the IAEA Director General, in which he had told Rouhani that President George W. Bush had requested to speak to the person with “absolute authority” in order to solve not only the nuclear issue but also “all issues” bilaterally in 2004. ElBaradei, reporting this to Rouhani asked him to consider this proposal, as it would solve many of the region’s issues in addition to Iran’s. Rouhani acknowledged that while Washington had “taken a step forward,” Tehran’s decision was not to negotiate directly with the Americans. In accordance with the regime’s narrative, Rouhani described this step taken by the United States as a way to stop a “key international issue,” that of Iran’s nuclear program, from being solved by Europe, as Washington views itself as the “chief of the world.”[13]


Rouhani is unlikely to directly engage in bilateral talks with the United States (unless ordered by the Supreme Leader) as this is not only beyond his power as president, but may also constitute a “red line” for the Khamenei, as he has condemned those who have expressed an interest in doing so publicly.


The Middle East


In his analysis of the role played by different actors in the Iranian nuclear dossier and negotiations, Rouhani proceeded to explain that both Israel and the Arab states had tried to create problems for Iran. According to Rouhani, the Arabs saw the nuclear program as empowering Iran, which they consider as a key player in the region. Especially since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the end of Iraq’s military prowess and the fall of the Taliban, which Saudi Arabia had supported in order to oppose Iran, the Arabs had felt more threatened by Iran’s influence.[14] Nevertheless, in his first conference after his election, Rouhani asserted that his administration’s “first priority in foreign relations would be friendly and close relations with all neighbors […] meaning with all fifteen countries,” based on “mutual respect and interests.”[15] He further highlighted the strategic importance of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia.


On Syria, Rouhani maintained the regime’s position: “solving the Syrian issue is in the hands of the Syrian people, the final decision-maker in Syria is the Syrian people, however, we oppose terrorism and civil war, as well as the intervention of other countries, which want to put their nose in the business of the Syrian people.”[16] Rouhani’s views on Israel are also in line with those of the regime: “We were not in conflict with Israel, even though we do not see them as legitimate, but historically, Iran has helped the Jewish people in some instances in the past centuries […] There is a big difference between not recognizing a country and wanting to wage war against it.”[17]


Russia and China


Rouhani’s views that while Moscow and Beijing play a decisive role in the nuclear negotiations, they alone cannot solve Iran’s nuclear crisis. Furthermore, Rouhani views the end goal of these countries as the same as the West – to stop Iran from developing an indigenous fuel cycle but with a different tone.[18] Hence, Rouhani believes that while having Russia and China onboard is useful, Iran should not solely rely on their support but attempt to galvanize other actors, including the European Union.




The Islamic Republic’s general approach to foreign policy has remained consistent regardless of successive presidents’ views. Indeed, even though reformist president Mohammad Khatami championed the idea of “dialogue of civilizations,” he also heavily relied on the “enemy narrative,” which has been at the very core of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy narrative since its inception. Moreover, under Khatami’s presidency, Khamenei rejected the so-called “Grand Bargain” offered by the Bush administration. Similarly, under Khatami’s presidency and by order of Khamenei, Iran made the decision to resume uranium enrichment. Rouhani is likely to follow this trend.


Rouhani is not likely to successfully address the very challenges he has identified, as they are the pillars of the regime. The Islamic Republic, as a revolutionary system, is based on slogans and the lack of political parties is its very nature. What is more, political awareness and political debate have been shaped in the country, albeit in spite of the regime, as demonstrated by the events of the 2009 presidential elections, the formation of the Green Movement, and the 2013 presidential elections. In fact, it is this very public awareness of the political discourse that has allowed Rouhani to succeed to Ahmadinejad as president. This is partly due to the fact that regardless of how moderate different actors within the regime are, they still believe in the core of the Islamic regime, which is based on the idea of its preservation above all and the fundamental belief that countries such as the United States and Israel, which Tehran does not recognize as a state, are its foes. Rouhani recognizes this fact:


“… in other countries, goals and values help national interests and, in case of contradiction, national interests are prioritized, but in an Islamic regime, sometimes the interests linked to the belief system take precedence over national interests. However, in circumstances where [this] would pose a threat to the very existence of the regime, we are no longer willing to continue it. This discussion is the most important one, and as the late Imam [Khomeini] and the Supreme Leader have stated, the preservation of the regime is the ultimate duty.”[19]


In fact, the supreme leader is the ultimate guarantor of the regime’s survival and this survival can only be ensured thanks to the leader’s absolute power. Therefore, the supreme leader’s decisive role in decision-making, along with the IRGC, would not allow the president to take too much liberty in his approach to foreign policy. This is especially the case of nuclear policy, as the fate of the country’s nuclear program is now viewed as being deeply tied to that of the regime.


However, while the final decision remains that of the supreme leader and his views are the regime’s position, given Rouhani’s experience as the country’s nuclear chief negotiator and his popular support, he can exercise more leverage and have more flexibility.  No president faithful to the regime, as Rouhani is, can and will challenge the supreme leader directly in the decision-making process, regardless of his own views. Nevertheless, Rouhani can directly influence the course of negotiations by appointing a more moderate and cooperative chief negotiator. In Rouhani’s words, “the instruments of [Iran’s] foreign relations are in the hands of the Foreign Ministry,” where Rouhani’s influence can be decisive.[20]


Ariane Tabatabai is a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College, London, researching nuclear proliferation. She specializes in Iran and the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the P5+1.

[1] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear,” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.

[2] Hassan Rouhani’s first press conference, 17 June 2013.

[3] Hassan Rouhani, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, Tehran: Center for Strategic Research (2011), 48

[4] Ibid., 49-51

[5] Ibid., 55-56

[6] Ibid., 56

[7]  Ibid., 484

[8] Ibid., 348

[9] Ibid., 592

[10] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear [Memoirs],” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hassan Rouhani’s first press conference, 17 June 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear [Memoirs],” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hassan Rouhani, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, Tehran: Center for Strategic Research (2011), p. 77.

[20] Mohammad Ghouchani, “Untold Nuclear [Memoirs],” Mehrnameh, Number 21, April-May 2012.



Asia pivot step one: ease Gulf worries


By Bilal Y. Saab – The Obama administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and U.S. Central Command’s 2013 Posture Statement call, among other things, for shifting the focus of U.S. military planning to the Asia-Pacific. To give itself a chance to successfully implement its global reposturing strategy, the United States must reshape its military presence and recalibrate its level of engagement in the Middle East. Doing so will require the support of willing and capable regional allies that can share the burden of regional security.


Given their wealth, modern armed forces, increasing regional clout and close relations with the United States, the support of Gulf allies will be counted on the most by Washington. The United States understands that bolstering the defense and security capabilities of its Gulf allies, a vital mission emphasized in the 2006 and 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review reports, will allow it to execute its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific. But current uncertainty in U.S. relations with its Gulf allies is making increased security cooperation difficult to achieve.




While it is not uncommon for allies to argue, disagree, or express concerns about policy (just look at U.S.-European relations during the Cold War), it is worrying when trust issues start creeping into the relationship. Contrary to what has been reported in the West and some quarters in the Gulf, relations between America and the Arab Gulf states are not at a crossroads. The alliance is whole, and American and Arab Gulf officials understand that there is too much at stake to preserve its strength and endurance. For more than four decades, the United States has had a robust web of alliances with the states comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This system has achieved common strategic goals, including securing the free and constant flow of oil from the region to the world at large; preventing the rise of a hostile regional power that could threaten Middle East stability; and countering Islamist extremists that seek to violently transform politics and society.


But since the start of the Arab uprisings in late 2010, a sense of uneasiness and anxiety has tainted the U.S.-GCC relationship, and it is having real-world implications for effective security cooperation and joint policy planning. Such discomfort and lack of clarity have been caused in part by negative perceptions on the respective sides. But it has also been exacerbated by the fact that the depth and scope of the region’s current security problems—caused by destabilizing political transitions and civil conflict—have overwhelmed the U.S. structure for cooperation with GCC allies, rendering it vulnerable to new internal and external threats.


On the Gulf side, there is a perception, acknowledged by CENTCOM’s 2013 posture statement, that the United States lacks commitment to the collective interests and security of its Gulf allies. For example, some Gulf officials have privately communicated to their American counterparts their growing concern about U.S. policy toward Iran. The fear in the Gulf is that the United States will either fail to stop Iran from getting the bomb or seek a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic, either of which will vastly undermine the security interests and well-being of the Gulf States. More specifically, some GCC capitals are more concerned than others over the fact that America is holding its cards very close to its chest with regard to military strategy and contingency plans for Iran, should the Islamic Republic cross any red lines. As one former Gulf commander recently told me, “I need some kind of assurance from the Americans should things in the Middle East fall apart. We need to know how we will protect ourselves. Joint exercises are great, but we need to be clear during moments of real crisis.”


Of course, Washington has repeatedly reassured its Gulf allies that their security is a top priority, made concrete steps to upgrade their defensive capabilities (through joint exercises, advanced training and sales of modern weapons), and clarified that its pivot to the Asia Pacific will not cause America to withdraw or disengage from the Middle East (the Obama administration has specifically said that emphasis will remain on the Middle East and the effort to decrease defense spending will focus on U.S. deployments in Europe, benefit and retirement costs, old weapons systems and the U.S. nuclear arsenal). Yet the Gulf states remain unhappy about U.S. defense-export controls. The process is cumbersome and can be confusing—“We often feel like strangers when we buy from America, despite our alliance” one frustrated senior official told me. Some Gulf governments now buy military equipment elsewhere, hindering interoperability between GCC and U.S. militaries.


And despite these encouraging words and actions, negative perceptions persist, and the record of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the start of the Arab uprisings has been less than reassuring to Gulf leaders and publics alike. Aggravating the perception is the fact that the United States withdrew its military from Iraq and, by default, allowed Iran to dominate its politics; that it could not “save” its Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak during the country’s uprising in 2011; and that it failed to effect a positive outcome to the ongoing Syrian crisis. It also does not help that Washington is going through a tough period of fiscal restraint that could challenge U.S. defense posture and foreign-policy responsibilities, a reality that has not gone unnoticed in Gulf capitals.


On the U.S. side, it has now become conventional wisdom in Washington that the Gulf States are bitterly divided and unable to work together to face common enemies. Indeed, there is a widespread view that the Gulf States are incapable of achieving collective security due to power politics, competition for influence, and significant differences over strategic vision and policy. On the political level, Washington is also worried about the internal stability, and thus reliability, of its Gulf allies. While there is no question that countries in the Gulf must implement wide-ranging political reforms, diversify their economies, and address the roots of potential social discontent, none of these long-term challenges make them unreliable allies to the United States. Take, for example, Israel, Washington’s closest ally around the world. With a growing demographic problem (the number of Arabs in Israel and Palestine will equal the number of Jews by 2016 and surpass it by 2020), flaws in its democracy (Arab citizens are treated unequally), and an influential ultra-Orthodox community that rejects a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel faces internal threats to its stability. Still, these problems do not disqualify Israel as a reliable U.S. ally.


GCC leaders have acknowledged the need for across-the-board reform and are committed to meeting public expectations. If and when they fall short, they will have to answer to their own people first, not to Washington. All the United States can do is assist its allies in creating more representative governments, promoting human development and achieving economic growth. As for the predominant theme in Washington of disunity within the GCC, it is true that there are differences among GCC states over regional issues, including how to deal with Iran and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this is neither unique to the Gulf nor uncommon in regional relations, and instead of misrepresenting or exaggerating those differences Washington would do well to better understand them.


Finally, with regard to the lack of intra-GCC security cooperation, GCC states can certainly do more to build closer security relationships and integrate their defense capabilities. But much progress has been made on that front—GCC states have come a long way since the 1990-91 Gulf War. Given its senior status and central role in the alliance, the United States also has a huge responsibility in this area. The United States and its Gulf allies could use a more honest and comprehensive strategic dialogue that doesn’t just focus on developing military-to-military engagement but that also delves, in a deep and transparent fashion, into issues of policy and strategy affecting the future of the region: Iran’s conventional threat and nuclear program; Syria’s future; Iraq’s security; the threat of Al Qaeda; the role of political Islam in a new Middle East; and more broadly, democratic transitions. Such a strategic dialogue can also address negative perceptions, clarify intentions and alleviate concerns on both sides, while also managing differences. Absent such a critical dialogue, the U.S. strategic objective of global reposturing will be particularly hard to meet—and the United States will forever be stuck in the Middle East.


This article initially appeared in the pages of The National Interest.