The New Iranian President and Nuclear Policy
By Ray Takeyh, Adjunct professor, Georgetown University
Reviewed by David T. Jones
On October 3, Dr Ray Takeyh, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assessing the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and providing insights on Iranian nuclear policy.
After noting that Rouhani has been both beatified and belabored as a prospective interlocutor on a variety of issues, notably the nuclear program, Dr Takeyh outlined some indicative background. Essentially, Rouhani self-identifies as a strong supporter of an Iranian nuclear program, dating to before the 1979 revolution. Iranian nuclear power is not a response to external challenges but rather an existential element of Iranian-Khomeini foreign policy. It has persisted over the decades and “all governments share credit for the program’s progress.” Consequently, one might conclude (although Dr Takeyh does not) that Rouhani’s 2004 announcement of voluntary suspension of the Iranian nuclear program was purely tactical, generated by the stunning U.S. victory over Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Dr Takeyh said bluntly, that Rouhani is not a reformer (“political freedom has rarely been a priority for him”) but rather part of the “more tempered wing of the theocracy that sees the nuclear debate in a larger context of Iran’s international relations.” Consequently, he believes that Iran can have its nuclear cake without losing a slice of it. He has yet to come to terms with the hard trade-off of dispensing with critical aspects of the program in exchange for relief from sanctions.
But Rouhani is hardly a free agent. Rather, nuclear policyand final decisions on any element of Iranian politicsis determined by the Supreme National Security Council, whose current leadership is clearly pro-nuclear and believes Iran has a unique destiny for regional preeminence. To achieve this objective will require greater circumspection than demonstrated by former President Ahmadinejad’s “unwise provocations and unnecessarily hostile rhetoric.”
Nevertheless, Dr Takeyh argues Iranian leaders now believe that to enhance its influence Iran needs a nuclear capability, but they also believe in a measure of restraint. He sees Tehran offering confidence-building measures and being more open to dialogue. Moreover, Iran's leaders hypothesize that a reasonable Iran can “assuage U.S. concerns about its nuclear development without having to abandon the program.” However, Dr Takeyh concludes that Iranian leadership sees no value in arms control agreements, having watched the international community look aside when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked his own countrymen with chemical weapons. For them, “the only way to safeguard Iran’s interests is to develop an independent nuclear deterrent.”
The ultimate arbitrator remains Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He will be keeping a closeand skepticaleye on Rouhani’s effort to square these multiple circles.
Ultimately, it sounds more akin to an Iranian effort to put a velvet glove on its steel fist while attempting to convince the United States that there really is no longer a steel fist.