The confirmation of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's sixth president on August 4 will provide an opportunity for renewed engagement between Western governments and the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, the background and character of Rouhani raises pertinent questions regarding the type of engagement that his election calls for.
Educated at both the hawza 'ilmiya in Qom and Glasgow Caledonian University, Rouhani has had a blend of classical Islamic tutelage and worldly engagement. His background is quite conventional. Many religious scholars in Iran often pursue secular educations simultaneously with their religious studies. The notion that Iran's politicians are either radicals or moderates is based on the incorrect assumption that there is no middle-way in Iranian politics. This assumption guides the equally misplaced notion that either Rouhani's worldview is narrowed by a 'conservative' religious establishment, or that his secular education and his calls for increased civil-liberties make him more 'liberal'.
Without categorizing Rouhani politically, the West needs to engage with his government based on its actions. In 2001, then US President George W Bush listed Iran as part of an 'axis of evil'. Paradoxically, this was shortly after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) took part in a joint operation with US forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban. The episode illustrates how large-scale gestures can go ignored and only with hindsight be fully recognized as significant. Similarly, former Iranian presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) both found themselves isolated internationally at crucial points of their tenures. Only later – and during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) – were they reputed in the West as relatively moderate leaders.
What gestures could Rouhani realistically make in the short-term? He could offer to share more information on Al-Qaeda operatives that are detained in the country – an area where there is already a solid foundation for enhanced cooperation. 'Secularizing' the Supreme Leader's fatwa against nuclear weapons proliferation and possession in ordinary legislation would also be significant. In return, the US could formally recognize Iran as a vital partner in ending the Syria conflict, inviting it to participate in future initiatives alongside Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Another move could be to reclassify the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) as a terrorist organization.
The policy of engaging Iran today consists of alleviating some sanctions in the event that Iran concedes completely on the nuclear issue, or increasing economic and political pressure. Maintaining the current course would allow Rouhani very little room to manoeuvre. If the US and EU engage with the next government on the premise that Rouhani will tolerate this status-quo, or will proactively seek to challenge the Supreme Leader's authority, then the opportunity for engagement will be lost. Enthusiasm for Iran's new government must therefore be tempered by a realistic assessment of the nature of political change in Iran: where Rouhani might attempt to build trust and how the West can respond. This is important for it might be some time before another 'Rouhani' emerges.
Rouhani's background as a cleric and as the Supreme Leader's confidant should not be misread as obstacles to change. Western governments should instead take full advantage of these facts: they now deal with a leader who understands their perspectives and is well placed to assure Ayatollah Khamenei that a nuclear deal is in the Islamic Republic's best interest. Political change in Iran has always been a gradual project of negotiation and renegotiation under the ruling Islamic framework, and this applies to identifying 'national security' priorities. Change will happen in Iran, including in its conduct of diplomacy, but not necessarily in the linear fashion some expect.
For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, foreign officials – including heads of states – were invited as guests to the inauguration of the president. It might be that initial small steps – and the recognition that both sides will be taking them – will lead to a more comprehensive settlement between Iran and the West.