Hassan Rowhani’s election as President of Iran on June 14 is unlikely to materially change the dynamics of the conflict between Iran and the western powers. The “reformists” in Iran who have backed Rowhani want improved handling of Iran’s diplomacy though not at the cost of yielding on principles.
On the nuclear issue and relations with the US, the Iranian positions have become entrenched over a period of fruitless negotiations and cumulation of mutual suspicions, with robust sanctions imposed by the US and Europe and military threats against the country, including by Israel, making the resolution of issues more complicated politically and procedurally.
The situation has become more tangled because of social and military convulsions in the Arab world leading to the emergence of conservative Muslim Brotherhood regimes in the north African littoral with extremist Salafist groups in tow. This has sharpened the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, anchored into a widening Shia-Sunni divide in this region as a whole, with Iran being accused of actively feeding Shia turbulence across the Arab world. Possibly even more than the West, the Gulf countries would wish to see the growing Iranian power curbed.
The Syrian issue has added to Iran-related anxieties. Iran is seen as Syria’s strongest regional supporter, with Syria also serving as its link to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. If the Sunni Arab world led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia would want the Alawite regime of President Assad to collapse so that Iranian influence in the region is diminished, Iran would want to retain its influence in the arc consisting of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and thus remain a vital factor in regional politics.
Barring Turkey, which today seeks an Arab role as an Islamic country, contrary to its historical tilt towards Europe as a secular country, Iran sees itself as the region’s largest country demographically and geographically, with massive energy resources, a well educated and technologically skilled population and potentially the region’s biggest market, and therefore impossible to ignore.
With Shias now ruling in Iraq and Iran’s role in Afghanistan set to expand after the US withdrawal and India’s search for connectivity to Afghanistan through Chabahar for retaining its own influence there, and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar feeling threatened by Iranian power, the Iranians can well conclude that the overall situation is playing in their favour despite western attempts to squeeze their country economically through sanctions.
The Israeli factor is a huge obstacle in the way of any “balanced” resolution of the Iran-West conflict- one that cedes some strategic ground to Iran. Israel would want Iran’s nuclear capability- seen as an existential threat- to be completely eliminated. If concerns that Iran may use its nuclear weapons against Israel in some future scenario seem highly exaggerated, its fears that with its nuclear capability giving it immunity against any retaliation, Iran may provide more potent support to Hezbollah to stage attacks against Israel are less imaginary, as our own experience with Pakistan tell us. This explains why Israel backs the elimination of the secular Assad regime even if it is replaced by Sunni extremist groups, because for it the breaking of the Iran-Hezbollah link through the Alawite Assad regime would be paramount. Significantly, Israel and Qatar are together in this game.
The pro-Israel lobby in the US is working to ensure that President Obama maintains a coercive line towards Iran. In part to forestall any precipitate Israeli military action, Obama has imposed severe energy and financial sanctions on Iran- the latest on June 3 targeting the already heavily depreciated Rial and Iran’s automotive industry.
For reasons of domestic politics too, the White House seems currently unreceptive to any constructive move to begin untying the Iranian nuclear knot. Obama’s primary focus is on his domestic agenda for carrying through which he needs every vote that he can possibly muster in the House of Representatives. With the Israeli lobby in the Congress already contributing to systematically blocking his initiatives, Obama will not apparently take the risk to alienate it further by any overture towards Iran. John McCain’s hawkish position on Iran has made his position even more difficult.
Rowhani, who was the chief nuclear negotiator when Iran suspended uranium enrichment in 2003, is considered a moderate. His operational style being very different from that of his predecessor, he will avoid antagonizing the US unnecessarily. His election in the first round itself, without accusations of vote-rigging, gives him credibility. However, it is well understood that on key political and security issues, including the nuclear one, it is Ali Khamenei who has the last word. How much can Rowhani’s supposed moderation orient Iranian policies on various contentious issues in a positive direction remains questionable. He will also have to deal with the nuclear hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Qods Force.
During his electoral campaign, Rowhani had called for President Assad to remain in power till the scheduled 2014 elections. At his first press conference on June 17, he ruled out any suspension of uranium enrichment but mentioned his desire to make Iran’s nuclear activities more transparent in order to build international confidence. He reiterated that Iran would welcome direct negotiations with the US if the latter stopped attempting to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs and abandoned its “bullying attitude”. If the West was looking for “new thinking”, that is not discernible yet.
Rowhani, who has dealt with India before, should be a friendly interlocutor. Our relationship with Iran has suffered because of stringent western sanctions against Iran. Although we have handled fairly deftly our difficulties so far, the natural expansion of India-Iran ties will have to await a resolution of the Iran-West conflict.