Raub: Rowhani’s pledge for increased government transparency is certainly a positive step in U.S.-Iran relations as is his willingness to engage in talks with the West. Though these pledges may soften the U.S.’s hardline approach with Iran in the short run, the only way to achieve long-term progress will be through the development of trust between the two states to the point where the U.S. is comfortable with Iran’s pursuing enrichment for peaceful means or Iran offering total transparency and letting the rest of the world see that their ‘suspected’ nuclear weapons program doesn’t actually exist.
Harmony: I personally feel that Ahmadinejad's bark was greater than his bite. There has been a whole lot of speculation about Iran's nuclear program and whether its intent is for energy and/or weapons. In March, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a joint press conference and stated the belief that Iran was about a year away from acquiring a nuclear weapon and that actions would need to be taken to prevent this. This is obvious instigating rhetoric against Iran. At this point I think the U.S. should step back and attempt diplomatic relations with Iran. I think one of the best 'shows of faith' that Iran's new president, Hassan Rowhani, can give- not just the U.S. but to the world- is to allow full access of its nuclear program to IAEA inspectors.
Jena: Although Rowhani’s declarations are seen as a positive step, there still remains the issue of Iran’s power structure. Despite his intent to increase transparency and cooperation, the clerical leadership and Supreme Leader Khamenei maintain absolute authority over state decisions and essentially, over what Rowhani can and cannot do. Khamenei has recently argued that nuclear talks with the West could be possible if the enemy were to cease their apparent stubbornness and stop focusing so intently on Iranian regime change. However, the Ayatollah has gained the reputation of a hard-liner who consistently opposes the U.S. and Western world in general. How might this overarching leadership avert the U.S. from changing its approach too quickly?
Jon: In the short run I’m not sure it matters who is in power in Iran. I think Khamenei is basically right in that, since the 1979 revolution, the U.S. government has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, a stance that has not changed no matter what the Supreme Leader-President combo has been. Rowhani won’t change the U.S.’s calculations there. I think it’s pretty clear that U.S. tactics, particularly since 2003, have shown that the U.S. is really focused on regime change, and Iran’s nuclear program is just a reason to keep pressure on Iran. From the Iranian perspective, they don’t see the U.S. as a willing negotiating partner. The Iranians have started to call this the “pointed gun” idea (which started with Ahmedinejad): how can the Iranians expect fair good faith negotiations when the U.S. is arming Iran’s enemies, assassinating its scientists, launching cyber attacks, and constantly threatening the use of military force?
As far as IAEA transparency, I just want to point out that, as far as I know, Iran is in good standing with the IAEA as far as declared nuclear materials, sites, etc. The most recent crisis has to do with a military site, Parchin. The IAEA has requested access but, if there is nothing nuclear going on at Parchin, Iran is not required to grant access. The IAEA is not an investigative body. In 2004 Brazil denied the IAEA access to certain materials and equipment within its nuclear fuel factory at Resende, and there was no major international crisis.
Tammy: Although I would like to see a change in the status quo, the dominant source of power does lie with the Ayatollah rather than the President. As Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei is obliged to abide and lead by the laws of Islam regardless of international and domestic politics. As far as I understand, the Ayatollah is opposed to weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program for reasons of faith and that his politics will not change if the US and other international players continue the status quo. Khamenei has said, “Negotiations and pressures are two different paths.” I hope that Rowhani’s commitment to transparency can begin to lead us down a path of peace but that path will be a lonely one if the US and other international powers are set on regime change.
Jena: I’m afraid that Iran’s ‘nuclear problem’ is more of a fabricated issue that allows the international community the justification it needs to attack the Islamic Republic’s regime. In 2006, exactly seven years before taking presidency, Time magazine did an op-ed piece on Rowhani promoting non-proliferation and de-nuclearization. After explaining to the world (on the behalf of the Ayatollah) why it is not in Iran’s best interest to develop nuclear weapons, the U.S. rejected the statements as dishonest and continued to push for UN sanctions. Thus, suspicions were maintained despite Iran’s best efforts to collaborate. If history is said to repeat itself, this is not a good sign for future diplomatic relations.
However, the West is not entirely to blame. During Ahmadinejad's administration, Iranian negotiators were looking from a perspective of internal security and regional stability due to the Green Movement and Arab Spring conflicts. This turmoil made it difficult for Iranians to trust one another, let alone US/Israeli intentions. Aside from the combined failure of the US to consider Rowhani’s 2006 proposal and Ahmadinejad’s enduring belligerence, the culprit lies with pro-Israeli doctrine. Ahmadinjead’s brutal administration gave Israelis leeway to demonise the entire state and provoke international forces to attack Iran’s nuclear program. In short, this triangle of deceit has led to an indefinite relationship between the West and Iran. The negative predispositions held by each party are unlikely to be altered drastically from one president to the next, regardless of what objectives they pledge.
Marieke: I’m going to play angel’s advocate and inject some hopefulness. Maybe Rowhani’s election and the toning down of rhetoric coming from Iran’s public face will offer a little breathing room for Iran and the West to (very slowly, I’m sure) pursue a relationship that’s more consistent with what’s actually good for each and the region. Greater stability is the safest option for everyone.
On the one hand, the U.S. and Israel want to avoid the regional instability that a nuclear-armed Iran would create. If regime change is the ultimate goal, I’d argue that keeping Israel’s neighbor non-nuclear is the more pressing short-term worry. To that end, the U.S. would be foolish not to sniff interestedly at Rowhani’s stated intention to show just how peaceful Iran’s nuclear program really is. If Iran is not trying to isolate itself, as Ahmadinejad’s belligerence suggested, how does it benefit the West to continue to push it towards isolation, driving its nuclear program (peaceful or otherwise) behind the veil?
On the other hand, both Khamenei and Rowhani have to worry about potential domestic instability, stoked by Iran’s crumbling economy due to international sanctions. Rowhani won a decisive victory on a platform that included a strong message of engagement with the West. Between this message and the memory of the protests following Ahmadinejad’s last, disputed election, Iran’s clerical leadership would be foolish not to give some rein to Rowhani’s call for engagement, especially bearing in mind that Rowhani is a relatively safe, known quantity to them; he’s a cleric and has been in government for years. I think it’s telling that the leadership allowed him to run for president in the first place. He may be a moderate, but he’s their moderate. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
So, perhaps there’s reason to hope that the realpolitik pot here is primed for cooling. Maybe both Iran and the West are ready for a deep breath and cautious reevaluation of relations. We’ll see.