‘Cautious optimism’ follows Iranian election

Eighteen million Iranians went to the polls June 14 and elected Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic centrist candidate who challenged the current government's positions on everything from the economy and human rights to its position in nuclear negotiations.

Rouhani … condemned outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "hate rhetoric" towards Israel.

Rouhani, who campaigned on the promise of moderation and "to pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace," also condemned outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "hate rhetoric" towards Israel and "extremist" positions.

Many in Washington, D.C., have taken notice. The Obama administration’s official response to the election was to reiterate its willingness to “engage the Iranian government directly in order to reach a diplomatic solution” to several contentious issues between the two. President Obama himself offered “cautious optimism.”

Some have interpreted the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s recent expansion of medical supplies exempted from sanctions as a goodwill gesture owing to the positive signals coming from Rouhani.

Major potential opportunity

Large numbers in Congress are also indicating their desire to pursue greater diplomatic efforts with Iran. In the House of Representatives, 131 members signed a letter that hails the election of Rouhani as a "major potential opportunity." The letter urges Obama to seize the moment for new negotiations.

This letter represents an unprecedented call for diplomacy with Iran.

This letter represents an unprecedented call for diplomacy with Iran, both in terms of raw numbers and level of bipartisan support. A similar letter recently introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is gaining momentum in the Senate.

Hawks in Congress are not lying down, however. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently announced that he will introduce legislation by October to authorize war with Iran unless a negotiated solution has been realized.

The House appears set to move forward with a vote on a new sanctions bill just before Rouhani’s inauguration, although there is far more opposition to that vote than there has been for previous ones. A letter being circulated by Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; John Conyers, D-Mich.; and Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; is calling for the House to halt the vote. Some cosponsors of the sanctions bill are even calling for the bill to be delayed.

Lessons from the past

As Iran considers whether to finally take up the U.S. invitation for direct bilateral meetings, the two sides would be wise to learn lessons of past negotiations. Rouhani can look to his own history, in which he served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005. During that time, he agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear enrichment and, according to Western diplomats, convinced the Supreme Leader to halt a nascent nuclear-weapons program.

France’s former ambassador to Tehran, François Nicoullaud, recently wrote in the New York Times, “The actions I believe [Rouhani] took in 2003 raise hopes that as president of the Islamic Republic he will be able to find and implement a negotiated solution for the continuing nuclear crisis.”

Rouhani suffered politically, however, for his efforts to compromise in nuclear negotiations. He was attacked by hardliners in Iran for being weak and even treasonous after his efforts failed to convince the West to establish an acceptable compromise in which Iran retained some level of enrichment.

Rouhani’s perceived negotiating failures helped usher in hardliner Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, who promised in his campaign to take a resistance-only approach towards the West and immediately resume nuclear enrichment.

Now, the question will be: What can the two sides actually agree to in order to end the standoff? If the United States and its partners are able to present a deal in which Iran retains its right to enrichment while observing enhanced transparency and safeguards measures, then there is much reason to be hopeful the standoff can be ended.

But if hawks on either side manage to escalate the conflict, including preventing sanctions from being lifted in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions, they could very well sabotage negotiations and derail what may be the last best hope for a successful diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

Editor's note: Caroline Cohn is an intern with the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Since its inception in 2002, NIAC has grown to become the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization in the country, with supporters in all 50 states. NIAC often teams with groups like the New America Foundation and Amnesty International to discuss issues such as diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, the deteriorating human rights situation inside Iran, and the Iranian nuclear program.

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