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Rohani’s Challenge: Avoiding Khatami’s Tragic Pragmatism – OpEd

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As the dust of the Iranian elections begins to settle and the final tallies reveal a major political shift as a result of the substantial gain of the reformists at the expense of the hard-liners, the big question is if President Hassan Rohani can capitalize on his newly-gained political capital and deliver some of the key promises on economic recovery in the post-nuclear accord context?

Certainly, Rohani can do so if the Western powers fulfill their obligations under the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and remove the anti-Iran sanctions that fetter their trade and investments with Iran. Otherwise, it will be a repeat of the Khatami experience, that is, how the former moderate president Mohammad Khatami was undermined by the stubborn refusal of the Clinton administration to lift the sanctions on Iran even after Iran reached a nuclear agreement with the European troika of Germany, France and England in 2004-2005, which halted its uranium enrichment program. Khatami was rewarded with token removal of sanctions, e.g., on Iran’s pistachio and carpets, while the Clinton administration oversaw the core institutionalization of Iran sanctions both through various executive orders as well as anti-Iran legislation.

Consequently, the West’s ‘betrayal’ of Khatami contributed to his replacement with the fervently anti-American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who broke the seals on the Iranian centrifuges and resurrected Iran’s frozen nuclear program, thanks in part to high oil prices that fueled the program as a “national program.”

Will history repeat itself, and is Rohani destined to the same unhappy conclusion that awaited Khatami at the end of his term, when he essentially had little or nothing to show in terms of Western reciprocity for Iran’s concessions?

Unfortunately, this is a realistic possibility born by the continuing anti-Iran hostilities, particularly in the US, which led the nuclear negotiations and, yet today, is also leading the world powers in terms of procrastination and selective implementation of the nuclear agreement.

A clue to the latter has been given by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization and former foreign minister, complaining of the other side’s “lack of fulfillment of obligations” under the JCPOA, particularly with respect to lifting the anti-Iran sanctions. Unless the Western politicians in Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin take such complaints seriously and remedy the situation, it is bound to get worse and, overtime, undermine the presidency of Rohani. There is a window of time, in light of the coming presidential race two years from now, that makes time an enemy of Rohani, particularly if like the Khatami era the western governments repeat their past errors by continuing to “play tough” with Iran at a time when conciliation and outreach is called for.

Chief among the Iranians’ complaint right now is Washington’s failure to authorize the sale of Airbus airplanes to Iran, without which the recent agreement between Iran and the (multi-national) Airbus company will remain in an indefinite state of limbo. Another complaint is that the US Treasury Department needs to authorize the sale of data base for SWIFT bank transactions by the California-based company, Oracle. As a result of this and other related problems, the Iranian banks, removed from the sanctions list, are still unable to transact through SWIFT, the Brussels-based center for interbank financial telecommunication. Part of the problem is, of course, due to the lack of banking confidence stemming from the “snap-back” provisions of the post-JCPOA UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (July, 2015), which raises the specter of punitive measures against institutions dealing with Iran. A ‘wait and see’ approach has thus supplanted a speedy normalization of western banks’s transactions with Iran, which hampers and in some cases even renders impossible, new western contracts with Iran. In turn, this has given fresh grounds for the hard-line criticisms of the Rohani administration, which will likely grow louder and more and more effective if the western governments continue with their present pattern of slow and incremental implementation of the nuclear agreement, for one reason or another.

Of course, this is not to mention the strong possibility of future Iran sanctions resolutions in the US Congress and or the big blow to JCPOA if the White House is captured by a Republican contender — all the candidates including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are on record vociferously denouncing JCPOA as a bad deal that they have vowed to undo once in Oval Office. Given this possibility, it is all the more important for President Obama, who counts on the JCPOA as one of the key legacies of his presidency, to take proper action to expedite the implementation of the JCPOA, a sine qua non for the political staying power of President Rohani. Yet, sadly, Obama the lame-duck president is now behaving more and more like Bill Clinton, who missed a golden opportunity to set relations with Iran straight during the Khatami era. Unfortunately, history often repeats itself and, in terms of US-Iran relations, the precious lessons about the past and the ‘roads not taken’ are often forgotten in the fog of geopolitics.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Editor's Note: Federal authorities in 2021 charged this contributor with operating as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government. Eurasia Review is leaving the article on the site as a matter of public record while updating his author page and the article to include this new information for context. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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