When 63-year-old Hassan Rouhani won the presidency June 15, the moderate winds of change began to blow around Iran. Since his predecessor 56-year-old Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office Aug. 3, 2005, Iran plunged into confrontation with the United States and its allies. Almost immediately after taking office, Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” calling on Europe to relocate Israel to parts of Germany or Austria. If that weren’t bad enough, Mahmoud hosted Dec. 11, 2006 a Holocaust deniers’ conference, throwing gasoline on already festering wounds. Simultaneously, Ahmadinejad antagonized the West touting Iran’s nuclear program, insisting Iran was a “nuclear power,” prompting concerns about a secret A-bomb building program. Earning his Ph.D. at Glasgow Caledonian University, Rouhani has served in practically every capacity in the Iranian government.
Before winning the presidency, Rouhani served as Secretary of Supreme National Security Council [1989-2005], Deputy Speaker of the Parliament [1992-2000], head of Foreign Policy and National Security Department [1992-2000], head of the Defense Department [1980-1988], member of parliament [1980-2000] and former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Despite Rouhani’s legal background, he was a loyal follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, working feverishly to undermine Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Apart from his attachment to the Islamic revolution, Rouhani has a pragmatic streak that seeks to reestablish relations with the U.S. Appointing 53-year-old former Iranian U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Javed Zarif as foreign minister shows exactly how serious Rouhani is to hit the ground running when he takes office Aug. 3.
Educated at the University of Denver, Zarif knows what it takes to mend fences with Washington. Since Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy Nov. 4, 1979, U.S. former President Jimmy Carter broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran. “He’s always trying to do what was possible to improve relations in very intelligent, open an clears ways,” said a senior Western diplomat with personal dealings with Zarif. No matter how well-intentioned Zarif, he takes his orders from 74-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. “Zarif is not someone who does favors for the United States,” said Obama’s former top diplomat Dennis Ross. U.S. and Israeli officials have played hardball with Iran in the U.N. Security Council, where progressively more draconic sanctions have been applied since Iran ejected U.N. weapons’ inspectors Feb. 21, 2012, defying the Security Council.
Whatever Zarif’s personal views, he knows he’s one word away from prison or bullet in the head if he defies Khamenei. Neither Rouhani nor Zarif have the latitude to set Iranian foreign policy, let alone make decisions to placate U.S. wishes on Iran’s nuclear program. Began during the Shah in the 1950s, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced enough to enrich uranium to near weapons grade capacity. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called Iran an “existential threat,” believing that if Tehran had nuclear weapons capability they’d hit Tel Aviv with a nuke. Iranian leadership has consistently denied any attempt to build A-bombs, despite suspicions by Western nuclear experts. “This [Zarif] is someone who know the United State very well and with all the frustrations of the past is still someone they know in Washington,” said an unnamed diplomatic official.
Seeking a “grand bargain” with Tehran, the U.S would like Tehran to make concessions on their nuclear program to end the sanctions that currently plays havoc on the Iranian economy. Zarif wants a return to the “grand bargain,” negotiating secretly off-and-on in Paris and Geneva between 2001 and 2007. U.S. officials want assurance that Iran’s nuclear program has no military component, something U.N. weapons inspectors could not guarantee. When a new top secret Iranian military nuclear site was uncovered in 2009, it raised more suspicions about Iran bomb-making ambitions. Unlike the ever-provocative Ahmadinejad, Rouhani and Zarif should set a different tone to open up a more amicable dialogue. Khamenei must weigh the benefits of insisting on a nuclear program at the expense of the Iranian economy. With Rouhani and Zarif, there’s more room for compromise.
Iran’s new foreign policy team seems more likely to deal with U.S. concerns over its nuclear program. Where Ahmandinejad displayed confrontation, Rouhani seeks more common ground. U.S. officials recall Zarif in 2001 playing a constructive at the Bonn Conference forming the new Afghan government shortly after Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban regime. Zarif prevailed on the Northern Alliance to cede the new Afghan government territory in provinces outside Kabul. If he shows the same kind of good will, it’s possible for the U.S. to revive diplomatic relations with Tehran, despite all the differences, especially over its nuclear program. “Zarif had achieved the final breakthrough without which [the Hamic Karzai government] might never have formed,” said veteran U.S. diplomat James Dobbins. Rouhani and Zarif look to start a new day.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.