Hassan Does Manhattan - Ten years ago, America was overextended in the Middle East — mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and vulnerable to covert attacks by Iran and its allies. Today, Iran’s regime is overextended, expending men and money and energy every day to keep the Syrian regime alive, Hezbollah on its feet in Lebanon and its allies fortified in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I HAD the chance this past week to take part in two press meetings with Iran’s
new president, Hassan Rouhani, and they left me with several distinct
1) He’s not here by accident. That is, this Iranian
charm offensive is not because Rouhani, unlike his predecessor, went to charm
school. Powerful domestic pressures have driven him here. 2) We are finally
going to see a serious, face-to-face negotiation between top Iranian and
American diplomats over Iran’s nuclear program. 3) I have no clue and would not
dare predict whether these negotiations will lead to a peaceful resolution of
the Iranian nuclear crisis. 4) The fact that we’re now going to see serious
negotiations raises the stakes considerably. It means that if talks fail,
President Obama will face a real choice between military action and permanent
sanctions that could help turn Iran into a giant failed state. 5) Pray that
option 2 succeeds.
Let’s go through these. Think about Iran’s recent
election that brought Rouhani to the presidency. Iran’s Guardian Council
approved only eight candidates, and two dropped out before the balloting. All
were considered “safe” from the regime’s point of view — no authentic liberals —
but as the election approached, it became clear that Rouhani was a bit more
liberal than the others. So Iranians had a choice: Mr. Black, Mr. Black, Mr.
Black, Mr. Black, Mr. Black or Mr. Gray. And guess what happened?
On June 14, Mr. Gray, Hassan Rouhani, won by a
landslide, garnering nearly 51 percent of the votes, with the second place
finisher, the mayor of Tehran, getting about 16 percent. Clearly, many Iranians
are fed up and used the sliver of openness they had to stampede toward the most
liberal candidate. Again, Iranians have now had enough democracy to know they
want more of it, and they’ve had enough Islamic ideology and sanctions to know
they want less of them.
I am not alone in that view. The Iranian rial, which
had lost some two-thirds of its value in the past two years of sanctions, shot
up after Rouhani’s election, and Iran’s stock exchange rose 7 percent, on hopes
that the new president would negotiate a nuclear deal to end the sanctions. In a
country with rampant unemployment and nearly 30 percent inflation, is this any
No, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did
not allow Rouhani to run and win and start negotiations by accident. The power
struggle in Iran is no longer just between the Revolutionary Guards, with their
vast business network and illegal ports that they use to break the sanctions and
enrich themselves, and the more pragmatic clerics. The Iranian silent majority
is now empowered and is in this story, and Rouhani’s charm offensive was
dictated as much by them as by the supreme leader.
I had a chat with Rouhani’s very sharp chief of staff,
Mohammad Nahavandian, and asked about his background. He is an economist, earned
his Ph.D. at George Washington University, and recently led the Iran Chamber of
Commerce and Iran’s negotiating team to join the World Trade Organization. He’s
Rouhani’s closest aide. Interesting.
To put it another way, Rouhani is here because Iran’s
regime is both overextended and underintegrated.
Ten years ago, America was overextended in the Middle
East — mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and vulnerable to covert attacks by Iran
and its allies. Today, Iran’s regime is overextended, expending men and money
and energy every day to keep the Syrian regime alive, Hezbollah on its feet in
Lebanon and its allies fortified in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the regime
is overextended, Iranians under age 30 — some 60 percent of the population —
feel underintegrated with the rest of the world. They want to be able to study,
work and travel in — and listen to music, read books and watch films from — the
rest of the world. That means lifting sanctions.
The fact that Rouhani could not shake President
Obama’s hand (they did speak by phone, in the end) because he feared a photo-op
would be used against him by hard-line Revolutionary Guards back home — before
he had gains to show for it — tells us how hard it will be to reach the only
kind of nuclear deal Obama can sign on to. That is one that affirms Iran’s right
to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power, but with a nuclear enrichment
infrastructure small enough, and international oversight and safeguards
stringent enough, that a quick breakout to a bomb would be impossible.
Geopolitics is all about leverage: who’s got it and
who doesn’t. Today, the negotiating table is tilted our way. That is to Obama’s
credit. We should offer Iranians a deal that accedes to their desire for
civilian nuclear power and thus affirms their scientific prowess — remember that
Iran’s 1979 revolution was as much a nationalist rebellion against a regime
installed by the West as a religious revolution, so having a nuclear program has
broad nationalist appeal there — while insisting on a foolproof inspection
regime. We can accept that deal, but can they? I don’t know. But if we put it on
the table and make it public, so the Iranian people also get a vote — not just
the pragmatists and hard-liners in the regime — you’ll see some real politics
break out there, and it won’t merely be about the quality of Iran’s nuclear
program but about the quality of life in Iran.