On June 14 Iran held a presidential election. Emerging as the winner was Hassan Rowhani, a cleric of relatively moderate views. Rowhani took over 50% of the vote in a six-candidate field, thus avoiding a runoff. Over 70% of the electorate turned out to vote, and large crowds filled the streets of Tehran and other cities to celebrate the election result.
By all accounts the election was free and fair, without the manipulation and fraud that marked the 2009 contest. Of course, the candidates for president were selected, or given permission to run, by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, Iran is by Middle Eastern standards a functioning democracy. And Iranians are more pro-Western than any other people in the Islamic world, except perhaps the Turks.
The Iranian people have, through their votes, expressed a desire to re-engage with the West, and particularly the United States. This is hardly surprising, given the economic suffering caused by the sanctions under which Iran has been living since 2006. Rowhani, while ruling out direct talks with the US for the moment, appears to want some kind of deal on the nuclear issue that has plagued US-Iranian relations for more than a decade. He was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, during the presidency of another moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami and Rowhani were responsible for Iran’s voluntary suspension of nuclear enrichment in 2004, a concession that brought no meaningful response from the US and its European allies. As a result, the hardliners in Tehran have been in the saddle since the Khatami presidency ended in 2005.
Iran will never agree to end uranium enrichment completely. Indeed, it has a right to enrich for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, in the present environment Iran may be willing to limit enrichment to less than 20% (at 20% enrichment uranium can be converted to weapons-grade material relatively quickly), and allow meaningful international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Given that President Obama has categorically ruled out containment as a response to a nuclear Iran, this option seems to be the only one other than war available to us. War would be a catastrophe for both Iran and the US.
The US has been given something very rare in international relations — a second chance. During the Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005, the US failed to seize opportunities for an American-Iranian détente. The Clinton administration was too timid; the Bush administration had no interest in improved relations. Given the importance of the Persian Gulf region, and Iran’s status as a regional actor, every effort must be made to reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic. Rowhani’s decisive victory has given him weight to counterbalance the hardliners in Tehran. By reaching out to him we can perhaps tip the scales in favor of peace.