Rouhani and Iran’s Foreign Policy: Charting the Change

31 Oct, 2014    ·   4721

Majid Izadpanahi looks at the shift in Iran’s policy towards its neighbours and the larger international community

Majid Izadpanahi
Majid Izadpanahi
Research Intern

After the presidential elections of 14 June 2013, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani has proved that he is introducing changes in the country’s foreign policy based on cooperation and moderation as he did when he was nuclear negotiator. Iranians have shown that they seek moderation and reject a hardline policy. This election has therefore created opportunities and opened the door for a rapprochement between Iran and the West.

The results of this election was a clear message from Iranians to the world, particularly the US, that they prefer a rational policy and dialogue with the West, a moderate approach, and the preference to be a part of the international community, rather than following an adventurous policy, confrontation with the West, and isolation. The radicals in Iran faced a dramatic defeat despite their eight-year old domination of the executive system.

Why Change?

Ahmadinejad’s maladministration led to economic chaos, devaluation of the Iranian currency and decline of the rate of economic growth. The conservatives’ hardline policies led to the internationally isolation of Iran. Admadinejad’s controversial speeches and policies raised suspicions in the West about Iran’s nuclear programme. This led to the to imposition of international sanctions on Iran with the purpose of curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons programme at the United Nations Security Council. The sanctions targeted the Iranian oil industry, banks and its economy, which had an adverse impact on the Iranian economy as well as Iran’s economic relations with other countries. Through the sanctions, there was an attempt to deprive the Iranian government of oil revenue and finally influence the nuclear programme. In response to this, Ayatollah Khamenei termed the sanctions barbaric.

Today, Iranian President Rouhani is determined to bring to end speculation about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and rebuild relations with the world and the West. Beyond that, he seeks to normalise the relationship with the US – as he himself said, Iran cannot be resentful of the US forever.

Iran-Middle East 

Relations between Iran and its neighbours are on an upward slope. Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who mediates between Tehran and Washington, visited Iran, perhaps to discuss mediation with the government. The ruler of Dubai, Shaikh Al Maktoum, in his interview with BBC in January 2014 demanded that the sanctions on Iran be lifted. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al faisal met Iranian Foreign Minister, Zavad Zarif in New York, where they discussed bilateral cooperation to fight terrorism and other regional problems.


There has been a significant change in Iran’s behaviour towards major European countries. After the seizing of the British Embassy by radicals and break in relations in 2011, the Iranian Foreign Minister recently met the British Foreign secretary and the respective embassies were reopened in Tehran and London. President Rouhani in his visit to Davos for the World Economic Forum invited oil companies to invest in Iran and was warmly welcomed by the large oil companies. Further, Iran and the P5+1 group reached an interim nuclear deal and the West has temporally suspended some of the sanctions on Iran until a final agreement is reached, when all sanctions will hopefully be removed.

Nuclear Deal

Just one month after Rouhani took the office Ayatollah Khamenei paved the way for flexibility in negotiations with the West by saying, “As long as red lines are not crossed … artful and heroic flexibility in all the political arenas are accepted.” This can be interpreted as Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for Rouhani’s foreign policy based on interactions with the West and integration in the international system.


Thirty five years after the Revolution and subsequent break in ties, the Iranian and American presidents had a landmark telephonic conversation, and the foreign ministers of both states have met several times in the form of bilateral and multilateral talks. The optimism that now has appeared is not only due to the gradual lifting of sanctions but also the results of the 2013 elections that brought back the pragmatists and reformists to power, who have already shown their eagerness for friendly relations with the West.

How Long Will the Change Last?

Everything now depends on how the US perceives the political situation in Iran and responds to the policy of the moderates. If the moderates and reformists get the expected results, it can increase their political manoeuvrability against the conservatives and radicals. The bottom line would be that the radicals would then not be able undermine the moderates’ authority.

Given the upcoming parliamentary elections in December 2015 in Iran, it becomes important to point out that parliament today is under the rule of conservatives. If the moderates hope to win, they will have to strengthen their position against the conservatives, and for this they need tangible achievements in terms of the economy and a comprehensive nuclear agreement. The nuclear deal can change Iran’s political and economic situation. And the sooner they achieve it, the better able they will be to change the power equation.