The overwhelming victory of President-elect Rouhani in Iran, and the Western response, has already found a two-word synopsis in the Western Media – “cautious optimism”. Certainly there is a sense that western journalists will benefit from never having to spell ‘Ahmadinejad’ ever again, but media sources are quick to point out that the most-reformist conservative candidate in Iran is still a conservative, and the ultimate power still lies in the hands of that nation’s religious authorities. However, there are at least two reasons for true optimism, precisely when we need it.
First, Mr. Rouhani is the choice of an overwhelming plurality in Iran, having won a majority of the population in an election where that was not a necessity. This clear margin was only possible because many reformist candidates, realizing they could not win, put their support behind him. It is unlikely that a truly liberal candidate would be allowed to run for president in Iran, much less have a chance at winning (much as in the United States, I might add), but the fact that the reformist factions of Iranian society are playing kingmakers in Iran’s presidential politics demonstrates their power and their savvy – if the Ayatollah and other leaders of Iran desire to keep some legitimacy with their democratic institutions, they will have to keep this in mind.
More importantly, it seems Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the rest of the ruling apparatus in Iran has already concluded the Ahmadinejad’s policies were a mistake. By allowing Rouhani to run and give the sort of messages he has been giving, Khamenei and others are providing an opportunity to improve relations with the West substantially. And the timing is absolutely critical. First, the election of a new, more moderate president is a much easier way to turn the ship around than trying to get the incumbent to change his stripes. Second, there is every indication that Iran is suffering mightily from the sanctions regime imposed upon it as a result of failed nuclear negotiations. Finally, the situation in Syria could still go either way, depending on how deeply involved the US gets. If Assad stays, he owes it to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and the (undoubtedly less secular) Syrian state will be even close to Iran. But if he goes, Iran could lose a powerful ally and see another one largely discredited. The US has the power to remove Assad (though not the power to replace him with anything better); Iran has to bargain with us to ensure we don’t use it.
As the US determines how to meet this opportunity, it is important to remember that this is not a zero-sum game. A true peace in Syria would be better, for the US and its allies as well as Iran and theirs, than a disintegration or bloody stalemate. A negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear program would close a deep rift between ‘us and them’. And something resembling normal relations with Iran will put the US in a much more flexible position vis-a-vis the entire Gulf region, as well as in Central Asia. Continued conflict, even if we are the Realpolitikisch ‘winners’, offers none of those possibilities. We have had this opportunity once before, with Khatami, and we blew it. Let’s not do the same this time.