President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for re-election May 19, is one of the pragmatic forces of the Islamic Republic who has a background in the Islamic Republic’s national security establishment. He served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005.
His book, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, was published in 2011, when the Iranian nuclear crisis had reached its peak, and then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters were accusing the previous negotiating team of capitulating to foreign demands. This book is significant as the first Iranian narrative of the events that led to the Tehran Declaration of 2003, when Iran agreed with France, Germany and Britain to suspend uranium enrichment and accept more stringent monitoring of its nuclear program.
The book also provides a great insight into Rouhani’s vision and political views. The majority of the book is dedicated to the history of Iran’s nuclear program and negotiations; however, the second chapter mainly focuses on the challenges of Iran’s foreign policy and the decision-making process. In the author’s opinion, this chapter deserves further attention.
In Rouhani’s view, there are two major political “mindsets” regarding foreign policy and the nuclear issue in Iran. The first group advocates constructive engagement with the international community using “prudence and patience.” On the political spectrum, these groups are widely known as the Pragmatist (centrist), and Reformist forces that advocate a non-confrontational foreign policy. Rouhani also mentions a second group, which prefers confrontation and so-called steadfastness. These are the groups that have criticized Rouhani’s engagement with the international community and which continue to oppose the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They are commonly known as Osulgarayan or the Principalists.
Rouhani correctly argues that domestic rivalries and political differences are harming Iran’s national interests. He further points out that at a time of crisis, no official wants to be responsible for making an important decision and officials “pass the buck” to a higher authority. He writes that “the power of making decisions in some officials have gotten so limited that few are willing to take responsibility for national decisions because of the fear of political ramifications…”
This behavior was evident during the Iran-Iraq war, especially toward the end, when Iran was running out of sufficient materiel to continue the war. At that point, the country was divided as to whether continue the fight or accept a cease-fire under UN Security Council Resolution 598. The decision was eventually made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic, who compared acceptance of the cease-fire to drinking poison.
Rouhani believes that that the lack of national unity is a major challenge. For example, Rouhani mentions in the book that prior to the presidential elections of 2005, “some” of the candidates had exchanged messages with European countries, asking them not to resolve the nuclear issue until the next administration began to work. The expectation was that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatist, would succeed Mohammad Khatami, a reformist. But Ahmadinejad won instead and an early opportunity to resolve the nuclear crisis was lost.
Rouhani appears to see both idealism and populism in foreign policy as detrimental to Iran’s national interests. This argument seems to be direct criticism of Ahmadinejad, whose harsh rhetoric and populistic ideas put Iran on a collision course with the international community.
“Unfortunately, sometimes in our country, illusion becomes the foundation of decision making,” Rouhani writes. “For example, this theory that the West has completely collapsed…. Or that they have realized that they have no way, but to resort to Iran [to save them]…”
Rouhani states that this mindset is the result of arrogance, and lack of political experience. Rouhani reiterates that the Islamic Republic has a mission to defend “oppressed people”; however, he states that Iran’s first priority, as that of any other state, is national survival.
Rouhani’s book was published two years prior to his “Prudence and Hope” campaign of 2013. At that time, he called for national unity to resolve the nuclear crisis with the international community, and promised to bring pragmatism back to Iran’s foreign policy.
A quick survey of National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy reveals that his administration’s foreign policy is the manifestation of what he had envisioned in his book. Therefore, one could argue that a proper understanding of his book would facilitate an accurate prediction of his current and future policies.
In his book, Rouhani not only provides an interesting narrative of the nuclear negotiations with EU-3, but also refutes the claims of his political opponents, who had accused him of surrendering Iran’s nuclear achievements. In the author’s opinion, his analysis of challenges facing Iran’s foreign policy is fair and accurate.
Rouhani argues that Iran should live up to all its international commitments. “One of the principles of Islamic government is its duty toward its commitments,” he writes. “It is extremely important for us to live up to our commitments; therefore, during my tenure [ as the nuclear negotiator] Iran did not accept any legal commitments [the suspension on uranium enrichment was temporary and voluntary]… If we do not live up to our commitments there will be no trust between us and other countries.”
These statements seem to be on par with Rouhani’s comments on Iran’s commitment to implementation of JCPOA. In the author’s opinion, the JCPOA should not face a major obstacle from Iran under a second Rouhani term.
Should Rouhani win the next presidential elections, we should expect the continuation of his “prudent” policies. If given the opportunity, Rouhani will likely press for further Iranian integration into the international economy with minimal emphasis on more political and cultural freedom at home.
However, Rouhani is also aware that he faces new challenges even if he is re-elected. A review of recent Iranian history reveals that the presidents of the Islamic Republic, regardless of their political affiliation, invariably became the targets of the Supreme Leader’s ire and tend to be sidelined during and after their second terms.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83