Year in Review

Iran 2013: Was Change the Buzzword?

13 Jan, 2014    ·   4248

Ruhee Neog presents an annual round-up

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

2013 was a year of change for Iran, most of which started roughly half way through the year. There was a change in leadership and a change in the conduct of diplomacy, both of which are of particular relevance to nuclear matters. If the West were in the business of handing out awards, in the nuclear category, North Korea would have held on to the ‘most disruptive’ trophy (for many years running now), and Iran would have been the real breakout star.

The year started on a bad note – there was mounting pressure in the form of further sanctions from a West distrustful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the threat of a possible ‘military option’ loomed large, and Iran continued to be defiant in the face of rising international opprobrium, all of which manifested in the worst way in the Iranian economy. For the most part, economic hardship triggered the changes that followed. In retrospect, Ahmedinejad came to signify the bad first half of the year, when Iran plunged to the doldrums. Rouhani, on the other hand, signifies promise.

Rouhani’s landslide win can be credited to his opponents’ weaknesses, in addition to his own merits. Rouhani is an Iranian ‘moderate’, well known but critical of the regime, which probably did not earn him any favours. However, when Iran went to the polls in 2013, several factors were working in Rouhani’s favour. One, Ahmedinejad’s grand standing against the West had come to naught, and Iran’s economy had taken a massive hit as a result of the many sanctions imposed on the country. Rouhani’s campaign emphasised change, and more specifically, sanctions relief. He promised greater engagement with the West to resolve Iran’s most outstanding issues. Two, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the way the 2009 elections had been conducted and doubts had been expressed about the authenticity of the results, leading to a certain displeasure with domestic politics. This could have made Rouhani’s image more palatable to Ayatollah Khamenei, and perhaps it was hoped that Rouhani’s general emphasis on change could be pupeetered to restore public faith in the regime.

Greater Engagement
As always, there is a caveat. These changes may be more conducive to mould Western perceptions of Iran, rather than usher in real change in the Iranian perception of nuclear issues – the façade may have changed, but the basics persist. Hassan Rouhani won the presidential elections in June 2013, succeeding Ahmedinejad. A ‘moderate’, Rouhani’s ascendance, on the campaign promise of sanctions relief, was also welcomed by international spectators. Many significant diplomatic overtures were made. Rouhani’s phone conversation with Obama, the first between American and Iranian heads of state since the Islamic Revolution, was one such move. Leading Rouhani’s new ministerial appointees is Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who conducted the nuclear negotiations in Geneva. Much has been made of his American education - this makes him more amenable to Western perception, perhaps more so than his contemporaries. It is important to bear in mind that this precisely why Rouhani made him Foreign Minister – to smooth over the difficulties traditionally associated with engaging with Iran.

A change in style towards nuclear negotiations was expected and duly demonstrated, although it was also widely understood that despite declarations of moderation, Iran’s stand on nuclear give-and-take would remain unchanged. This is for several reasons. Rouhani may have been publicly critical of the Iranian nuclear programme, and responsible for the only nuclear deal between Iran and the West signed in the early 2000s, but he has himself acknowledged that the negotiations bought Iran time to proceed with the development of its nuclear programme. Additionally, Rouhani, despite public approval, could have not assumed the presidency without the sanction of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. This grants him some leverage but it also restricts decision-making, seeing as Khamenei has the final say in all matters. The fact that Rouhani even made the cut to stand for elections (as opposed to the many who were disqualified) alone demands that his moderation be qualified.

There was greater engagement, therefore, stemming from the need for respite from sanctions. However, a reorientation of Iranian nuclear thinking is unlikely.

Geneva Negotiations
Rouhani’s election paved the way for a breakthrough nuclear deal after intense negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1. This interim deal offers sanctions relief in exchange for a reduction in uranium enrichment, amongst other promises.

It is an interim deal of six months, so both parties can cautiously gauge the opposition’s intentions while addressing concerns for a more conclusive resolution. This does not tie the parties to long-term commitments without proof of the other’s sincerity, making it a good first step for further negotiations. Its significance is that it is of a kind that was previously missing.

The negotiations conducted in Geneva cannot be cast as a failure. It is precisely the length of this deal that allows both parties to assess each other, and make a swift exit if the results do not match expectations.