For the United States, 2013 has been a critical year throughout the Middle East. The ongoing Arab Spring has resulted in sudden transformations of the political system particularly in Egypt. There, the military surprisingly has returned to power, thereby halting any attempts for the germination and blossoming of democracy. In Syria, continued civil war has led to even greater violence, more gruesome deaths, and little to no serious desire for the fighting to cease. Religiously based factions and social upheaval have resulted in more disarray within society struggling for a different kind of political life in the Middle East. The U.S. has been diffident to the prospect of reaching any type of cohesive policy for much of the turbulent domestic politics in the region.
However, on a much more positive note, this year serves as a favorable time for the United States to meet its foreign policy objectives on another equally significant matter: searching for a genuine solution to Iran’s controversial nuclear program. This July, the Iranian people elected a new president. His name: Hassan Rouhani. Until recently, he has not captured the attention of the international community or been in the media’s spotlight. There are a few reasons why I believe this relatively new figure on the world stage can improve relations with the West not only on the nuclear program but also push forward a conducive atmosphere for diplomatic agreements in the near future.
Seen as politically moderate (in the current Iranian political spectrum) in contrast to his staunchly conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani has a prominent historical background. Partly educated in Great Britain where he attained a degree in law with a specialty in Islamic jurisprudence, Rouhani has been actively involved in post-revolutionary Iran in political activities. He occupies the middle way, operating in between the reformists and conservatives. When running for the presidency, he campaigned to improve an ailing domestic economy and also ameliorate tensions with western nations over the nuclear puzzle. Last week he stated that he wanted to initiate “constructive dialogue”, a remark that has initially paved the way for some sort of agreement that the U.S. desperately needs to muster. In addition, Iran released a few political prisoners who were charged with undermining the authority of the state. New developments within Iran may change the country’s responses when it acts on the world stage. Rouhani also campaigned for greater gender equality. Within Iran, domestic politics are already witnessing some change, a harbinger of a new foreign policy direction.
Arriving at the United Nations in New York this week, Mr. Rouhani is expected to announce his intention of remodeling Western-Iranian relations, a pivotal issue that has plagued the international community for nearly a decade. What is telling is his recent attempt to become more transparent with the West, particularly the United States. Rouhani also mentioned that he was receptive to the ideas of meeting with President Obama at the UN. Rouhani’s positive language should be scrutinized and taken seriously if the United States wants to establish greater legitimacy when dealing with the Middle Eastern issues. This may be a fruitful time when the U.S. could achieve its national objectives by carefully inviting Iran through diplomatic means instead of using the power of coercion, which it already has but with no apparent success. Sanctions and barriers to trade have bolstered rather than undermined the nuclear program. The Iranian regime promotes the nuclear program to reassure its people that it is the legitimate authority which must continue to function.
At the same time however, a relaxation of tension will not be a panacea for the debacle. Rouhani has clearly said that Iran will continue to enrich uranium for energy purposes only and that it will not use its resources to manufacture a nuclear bomb. If the United States at any time finds this unacceptable, any approach will render futile and could prove detrimental to the overall direction of dialogue. What needs to be taken into consideration is how Iran will respond to the challenges it faces. Lessons from the past have shown how fiercely the Iranians have fought against a depressed economy but quite remarkably not relented on withdrawing their nuclear program. The U.S., at this moment, should extend its leverage not only to cooperate with Iran on a deeply contested issue, but also affirm itself as a leader that accentuates diplomacy as a very powerful tool for solutions to be found and agreed upon. With this mind, time will surely tell whether a win-win game is possible.