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Talking With Tehran

The Indian Express
By Professor  

Last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani resumed the second term of his presidency. The new Rouhani team, however, suffers from a lack of novelty since more than half the members of the previous cabinet, including the key minister of foreign affairs, have been retained. There is no woman in the cabinet while two women were nominated as vice presidents for women and family affairs and legal affairs. The reformists have been excluded from the cabinet even though they see themselves as the architects of Rouhani’s electoral victory.

During his campaign, Rouhani played the card of stability and continuity against his opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, who was supported by the ultra-conservatives and the immediate entourage of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The disappointment of the Iranian reformists in not having reformers in the cabinet goes hand in hand with the unhappiness of Iranian hardliners, who have had to accept the re-nomination of the two Western-educated ministers — Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, and Bijan Zangeneh, the petroleum minister. The re-nomination of Zarif is a message to US President Donald Trump and the hawks in Iran that the government stands firm on the nuclear deal it signed with the Obama administration. According to Zarif, the “reduction and management of tensions with the US will be among the most important duties of the foreign ministry”.

The return of Zarif and Zangeneh leaves very little doubt about the agenda of the second Rouhani government. The president will continue the focus on engagement with the global economy and the nuclear agreement. However, the Rouhani government will be under pressure from the Iranian and American hawks. Although the Iranian legislature and Khamenei support Rouhani’s foreign policy and economic vision, the latter will need to elevate the tone against the Trump administration, which, in July, imposed sanctions on six Iranian firms for their role in the development of the ballistic missile programme.

It is not yet clear if President Rouhani would be in a position to forge a more moderate line in the wake of US pressure. However, it is unlikely that the Trump administration would necessarily erect a Sunni arc to curb Iran’s purported Shiite crescent in the Levant. The American administration is well aware that tensions with the Rouhani administration can feed militarism, increase the power of the Revolutionary Guards and diminish the president’s maneuvering space in Iranian politics. Besides, the Islamic Republic of Iran, while adhering to commitments to curb its nuclear programme, is also looking towards more collaboration with Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. That allows Rouhani to signal to Trump that when it comes controlling events in the Middle East, the ball is not always in his court.

Last but not least, the nuclear deal could cause “collateral damage” to both Rouhani and Trump since its termination will influence Iran to continue its ballistic missile development, which will raise the costs in the region for the US. Washington will then come under attack from the Iranian regime’s networks and influence operations in the Middle East, including in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

It is ironical that some elements in the Trump administration are now so convinced of the fragility of Iran’s regime that they seem to be pursuing a policy of regime change. The truth is the Iranian regime has never been as stable as it is today in the past 38 years of its existence. Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv ought to know that the stabilising processes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will depend largely on political and economic negotiations and agreements with Iran. De-escalation in the region will be infinitely more difficult if the US fails to build a pragmatic relationship with Tehran.

The writer is professor and executive director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre, Jindal Global University