September 12, 2013
The South Asia Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion entitled “US-Iran Reconciliation Under President Rouhani?”

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Three panelists explored the potential positive implications of the election of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, on US-Iranian relations. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, spoke primarily on the domestic political implications in Iran. Ms. Esfandiari described Rouhani as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. She cautioned, however, that no-one can expect miracles from President Rouhani. He will still need to deliver on the Iranian economy, make compromises with the conservatives, and reign in the security forces. Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, focused on Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Einhorn believes that there is now a new opportunity for direct talks between the United States and Iran, and realist negotiations on the nuclear issue. According to Mr. Einhorn, this does not mean that the Iranians will be “pushovers.” They have already engaged in a skillful public diplomacy campaign, and still wish to have their right to enrichment and a peaceful nuclear program recognized. Kenneth Katzman, a specialist on Middle Eastern Affairs for the Congressional Research Service, talked about the sanctions regime against Iran. Iran has been severely damaged by the sanctions, with direct effects that include massive inflation and severe economic depression. Mr. Katzman explained that while outrightly repealing sanctions is extremely difficult, President Obama has the room to maneuver regarding sanctions, if a viable deal is presented.

Overall, the panel expressed cautious optimism regarding the prospects for improved US-Iranian relations. While Rouhani is a pragmatist, his portrayal as a moderate is due largely to a comparison with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose diplomacy Ms. Esfandiari described as similar to an enfant terrible. It remains to be seen if Rouhani’s actions as president match his rhetoric; however, they concluded that the possibility of improved relations is greater than it has been in nearly a decade.