The election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s president has drawn some stern warnings against the hope that his victory signals meaningful change. It’s too soon to know exactly what it signals—but the result is a welcome surprise and an opportunity that should be cautiously explored.
Rohani isn’t a reformist or a moderate in the ordinary meaning of the word—but, so far as we know, he isn’t a habitual Holocaust denier or demagogue either. When it comes to Iran’s leadership, that’s progress.
The Scottish-educated cleric also seems to be something of a pragmatist. As a nuclear negotiator in 2003, he agreed to suspend Iran’s enrichment of uranium. It helps that he owes his election to the support of two former moderate presidents—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—plus voters from the anti-regime Green Movement. They’ll remind him of his campaign promises to improve the economy and relations with the rest of the world. It’s true that Rohani was a regime-approved candidate and that no reformists were allowed to run, but his election is still a rebuff to conservatives. They lost, and they know it.
The election certainly improves the public face of the Iranian government—and that’s exactly the danger, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With Rohani in office, rallying international support for tighter sanctions or future military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities will be more difficult. Iran’s supreme leader and chief of foreign policy is still Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a man thought unlikely to budge except under pressure.
Military action against Iran is a deeply unappealing option, but the threat needs to be retained as a last resort. Too exuberant a reaction would be counterproductive in another way. Rohani was pilloried by conservatives for weakness over the 2003 suspension of uranium enrichment, which didn’t yield a settlement and was reversed once Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took power. Any suggestion that the U.S. and its allies are delighted to have Rohani as a negotiating partner could force him to harden.
Nonetheless, Rohani’s election provides an opening, especially if it indicates a movement in popular sentiment that the leadership has decided to tolerate. How big or small the shift will be is for Khamenei and Rohani to resolve, starting with whether the supreme leader agrees to remove defeated conservative presidential candidate Saeed Jalili from his post as nuclear negotiator.
The so-called P5+1—China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) plus Germany—should make clear they are ready to reopen talks as soon as possible and willing to reward any real improvement in the Iranian negotiating position. Time for a negotiated settlement is running out. Still, nobody should pretend that Rohani’s arrival has transformed the situation. The election provides a glimmer of optimism, no more.