When talking about elections in Iran, many people think back to what ensued following the 2009 presidential elections: mass demonstrations and outrage over a rigged election, which resulted in hundreds being imprisoned, tortured, put on mock trials, and killed. The 2009 elections left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, especially Iranians living in Iran. The main opponent of Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election was Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who became the leader of the Green Movement. The peaceful demonstrations were squashed, and as of February 14, 2011, reformist candidates Mousavi and Karroubi, and their spouses, have been under house arrest. The events following the 2009 elections left many bitter. This resentment clearly carried over to the presidential elections this June, where many in Iran added their voice to those living abroad to boycott the elections, as the results for them were predetermined.
However, on June 14th, 2013, the results of the election took many by surprise. Of the eight candidates pre-approved by the Guardian Council to run, moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani was elected as the new President of Iran. Holding a PhD degree in Law from Glasgow Caledonian University, Rouhani is seen as a moderate cleric who promised to improve relations with the West during his campaign. The question now remains: should Rouhani be taken up on his promise of renewed talks with the West, and how influential can he be in this undertaking?
While the elections in June were clearly not free, the results do beg some optimism. The Iranian people, after eight years of rule by President Ahmadinejad, still came out in droves and cast their votes – and surprisingly, their votes were counted. This should not be taken lightly – this is clearly an indication to the rest of the world that the majority of Iranians are committed to the democratic process, and to having their voices be heard. And when those voices are heard, the Iranian people choose moderation and renewed talks over isolation from the rest of the world. The United States and other Western powers should embrace the sentiments of Iranians and welcome the prospect for renewed talks. And President-elect Rouhani has taken steps to keep his campaign promises – Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq has notified the United States that Iran was interested in direct talks with the United States on its nuclear program. Moreover, the appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister is seen as a clear sign of openness to America and the West. Zarif received his doctorate from the University of Denver, speaks fluent English, and built a world of contacts in Washington while serving as Ambassador to the UN from 2002 to 2007. All of this indicates a sign of goodwill from Rouhani, who took office on August 4th. And these goodwill gestures should not be ignored, as the time is right for diplomacy between the two countries.
During President Obama’s first term, the prospect for renewed diplomatic relations with Iran was high. However, the 2009 elections and the demonstrations that followed proved that it was too unpredictable of a time to engage with Iran. Another opportunity arose in 2010, with a joint declaration made by Iran, Brazil and Turkey on Iran’s nuclear program, dubbed the Tehran Declaration. While Turkey and Brazil saw this as a great opportunity for renewed talks, the US imposed new sanctions on Iran, and the deal was disregarded. There was also an opening during President Khatami’s presidency from 1997 to 2005, which many claim was missed due to tensions in Iran within the government between moderate Khatami and the conservative Parliament and Supreme Leader. Clearly, there have been a number of opportunities for engagement between the two countries, which have been dismissed by one or both countries.
And hopes were up on July 19th, when an unprecedented 131 members of Congress sent the Dent-Price letter to President Obama urging renewed diplomacy with Iran. Unfortunately, the waters were muddied last Wednesday, when a 400-to-20 House vote approved the toughest sanctions on Iran yet. The legislation, known as the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, could not have come at a worse time, where a very hostile and uncompromising message is being sent to the newly elected President.
While Iran greatly criticized this new move by the House of Representatives, there still seems to be some hope for an opening of talks between the two countries. On Sunday, as Hassan Rouhani officially took office with the backing of the Supreme Leader, he again vowed to work with the outside world to lift the “oppressive sanctions” crippling the Iranian economy. While the Supreme Leader does have final word and took a different approach and urged self-sufficiency, Rouhani’s capacity to engage the West and bring about change should not be dismissed altogether. Never during Ahmadinejad’s eight-year reign was engagement with the West so openly vocalized and stressed by the President or his cabinet. The accumulating sanctions have also taken a tremendous toll on the general public, resulting in mass demand for a change of policies within the country.
With a newly elected moderate in office open to engagement, it is clearly time for the Obama administration to take another look at diplomacy with Iran. Future talks should not be complicated with additional sanctions before they have even begun, and an openness for dialogue without any preconditions should be made clear to Iran, for such an opportunity to engage may not come around again.