America’s Carpe Diem Moment: Giving President Rouhani (and Iran) a New Lease on Life
During his first appearance at the annual U.N. General Assembly, and in what pundits have since baptized a “charm offensive,” Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President, professed his commitment to a new era of constructive engagement with the U.S. Indeed, his refusal to make concrete promises notwithstanding, in going so far as to court American business leaders and to refute his controversial predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s staunch denial of the Holocaust, Mr. Rouhani seems almost desperate for the U.S. to respond well to his repeated invocations for détente.
A political moderate, Mr. Rouhani swept into office in August having successfully campaigned to revive Iran’s failing economy and to ease tensions with the U.S. Riding a wave of popular support, his closest competitor––the conservative Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, whose close ties to the Revolutionary Guard might put him in good standing with Iran’s pro-nuclear right-wing––having scraped a mere 16.46% of the vote, a casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that Mr. Rouhani was in an excellent position to effect immediate and substantive change. And yet, the Revolutionary Guard, which Mr. Rouhani would diametrically oppose should he enact his moderate, pro-West agenda, retains its position as an unassailable political force rivaled only by Iran’s Shiite clerical system. It stands to good reason that Mr. Rouhani recognized the precariousness of his position and understood that his brief visit to the U.N. would represent a fast-closing window of opportunity to set into motion an easing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, hence his desperation.
As such, Mr. Obama’s stab at diplomacy is a promising step in the right direction, not only because it comes at a time of great political uncertainty (and, therefore, opportunity) in Iran, but also because it represents a complete about-face of U.S. foreign policy in the region, and failed policy at that. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the U.S. has labored incessantly and with increasing urgency to quell Iran, its primary method of intervention being economic sanctions and the occasional threat of military action. Though the sanctions imposed on Iran have, by all reports, frustrated the nation’s efforts to export oil, which accounted for 60% of its total government revenue in 2009, they have also restricted the public’s access to basic goods and services like food and quality health care. Inflation has skyrocketed to 30% (though outside experts believe it is as high as 70%), and unemployment to 20%. Even as these sanctions have thoroughly failed to chasten Iran’s hostile government, they have effectively stymied Iran’s economy and, in so doing, serve only to incite ordinary Iranians against the U.S.
For the U.S., Mr. Rouhani is a godsend. The newly-elected Iranian President’s eagerness to make amends with the West and open Iran’s economy to foreign investment makes him an exceptional figure in Iranian politics, with whom the U.S. could easily foster ties of mutual trust and respect. Through Mr. Rouhani, the U.S. could gain its much-needed foothold in the Arab world. For, by making a sincere effort to empower Iran and its people through diplomacy and the lifting of crippling economic sanctions, the U.S. could convince Arabs as a whole of its goodwill and commitment to their individual well-being. Thus could the U.S. simultaneously distance itself from its past failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and work actively to prevail upon Iran to cease its nuclear aspirations, improve its ties with Israel, and dissociate itself from Hezbollah, North Korea, and Syria. Finally, an easing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran might inadvertently improve the U.S.’s relations with Russia, a mutual ally, as it would demonstrate to Russia the U.S.’s commitment to diplomacy, which Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s President, described as lacking in a New York Times op-ed published last month.
But, if the U.S. is to engage Iran in diplomacy, it must do so without delay. Mr. Rouhani, though well-regarded for his good sense and moderate political views, faces uncompromising resistance from Iran’s large conservative bloc. Indeed, upon his return to Tehran from the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani was greeted with hurled eggs and shoes, evidence of the skepticism and outright disgust with which many Iranians view his efforts at diplomatic outreach. And that is not to mention the hard-line Revolutionary Guard, a multibillion-dollar military, political, and economic entity with ties to over a hundred companies, which retains its grip on power, and therefore is not to be crossed. Given the strength and animosity of Mr. Rouhani’s numerous political opponents, is it not conceivable, then, that his presidency could come to a sudden end, either by the ballot or, dare I say, by the bullet?
To avert this distressing prospect, the U.S. must give whatever economic assistance it can to Iran, so that ordinary Iranians, witnessing an improvement in their livelihoods, might flock to Mr. Rouhani’s standard, affording him the popular mandate to proceed with his transformative agenda. The U.S. might even want to consider sending (clandestinely, of course) a detachment of security personnel to supplement Mr. Rouhani’s own security, if only to guarantee his personal safety during the period of instability that will inevitably follow change of such magnitude.
In a nutshell, the U.S. must make it so that Mr. Rouhani is untouchable, politically and otherwise. It must help Mr. Rouhani mold himself into a savior-like figure so popular with the masses that Iran’s hard-liners, overwhelmed by the shifting tide of popular opinion, would not even think to supplant him.
Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.