Rouhani's beautiful victory : what comes next?

Hassan Rouhani has undoubtedly won a brilliant victory in the presidential election, with a tally exceeding 60% of the valid votes cast in its first and only round (the 57% figure usually cited by the media included blank and invalid ballots). The result has exceeded the predictions of most experts. It provides Rouhani with a strengthened mandate to implement the campaign pledges that he already made during his first election in 2013 and that he reiterated during the latest campaign: more freedom for Iranian society and a more positive interaction with the rest of the world. These mutually reinforcing policies should lead to greater prosperity.
But this popular support won’t be enough to persuade the main pillars of the Islamic Republic—the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the judiciary—to acquiesce in such a program. For the conservative core of the regime, Rouhani has fulfilled his historical task by concluding the Vienna nuclear agreement of 2015 and would be well advised to confine himself henceforth to the management of current affairs.
Will the incumbent president be able to escape the curse that struck his two predecessors during their second terms? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though supported initially by the most powerful elements of the regime, ended up at war with all his patrons and unable to take the slightest initiative. Before him, Mohammad Khatami had seen the ultra-conservative Guardian Council rescind all the progressive legislation passed by a friendly parliament. More recently, Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the last presidential election, as another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been in 2013. Since 2015, all Iranian media have been banned from even mentioning Khatami. In Iran, being a president of the Republic is indeed a risky proposition.
Of course, Rouhani could bet on the prompt demise of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, aged 77 and seriously ill, as an opportunity to reshuffle the cards of Iranian political life. But he would put himself entirely into the hands of providence. And Khamenei is almost certainly preparing the ground for two or three potential successors whose views are unlikely to differ significantly from his. Even if this succession were to come on short notice, there is no guarantee that Rouhani’s task would be made easier.
The Fights to Come
If Rouhani does not want to reach the end of his term of office discredited and rejected by his electorate, he will have to engage in some tough fights and be prepared to break some of the Islamic Republic’s most sacred crockery. Rouhani knows that internal and external openings tend to interact and that he will have to act simultaneously on both fronts. Fortunately, some steps forward, highly symbolic but also carrying tangible effects, are within his reach, whatever the formidable obstacles looming before him.
On the domestic front, for instance, the Law Commission of the Iranian parliament has already pronounced itself in favor of a draft amendment to the criminal code abolishing the death penalty for drug offenders. The adoption of such a bill by the parliament, if confirmed by the Guardian Council, would reduce the number of executions in Iran by about 90%, from at least several hundreds per year to a few dozen. Even if that would still be too many, it would mark the end of the disastrous image of Iran as the world’s first or second country for the number of executions per capita.
On the international front, two dramatic gestures would allow Iran to surprise even its most hostile adversaries and position itself as a regional trailblazer in the field of nuclear and ballistic non-proliferation.
Movement on Missiles
The first one would be to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). By ratifying a text that it already signed in 1996, Iran would incur no new obligations, as it has already renounced the development or acquisition of a nuclear weapon when it acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But it would set an example for its neighbors, and even beyond, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and even the United States and China have yet to join the CTBT. At the turn of the century, Iran already authorized the CTBT Organization to install on its territory automated seismic stations designed to detect nuclear explosions. If this arrangement were reactivated, it would send an additional positive signal to the international community.
The second gesture would be for Iran to join the Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation adopted in The Hague in 2002. Iranian experts participated at the first preparatory meeting but dropped out later. In essence, this code requires its signatories to provide an annual declaration on the outline of their ballistic missile and space launch policies, disclose the number and characteristics of ballistic and space vehicles launched in the previous year, and provide advance notice of launches and test flights. In this age of worldwide satellite observation, such transparency measures would in no way jeopardize Iran’s ballistic defense decision-making autonomy. It could also exert a deterrent effect probably more effective than the usual bombastic declarations coming from Tehran on the subject.
The powerful IRGC manages the Iranian ballistic missile program, but Rouhani should be able to overcome its possible institutional resistance, much as he did in 2003 when dealing with the nuclear file. In that episode, he demonstrated that he had enough energy and political will to secure from the IRGC the cessation of some controversial nuclear activities. If he could convince the IRGC of Iran’s interest to adopt the Hague Code of Conduct , Tehran would position itself as the vanguard of its region, given that the kingdoms of the Arabic peninsula, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel have yet to join this agreement.
The Role of Others
These possible moves by Iran should, of course, be encouraged and also reciprocated in one way or another. At the very least, the present US administration should perceive them as a signal of good will. For its part, Israel could find in such moves an indication that the “Iranian threat” could become less “existential” than before, even if Netanyahu might find it difficult to publicly admit. Saudi Arabia, which has asked repeatedly for “deeds, not words,” would thus receive an appropriate answer. And of course, the P5+1 countries that concluded the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—would bear a special collective responsibility to respond.

The last provision of the agreement’s preamble states that Iran and its six interlocutors, plus the representative of the European Union, shall meet at the ministerial level every two years, or earlier if needed. Two ministerial meetings have already taken place in New York, in September of 2015 and 2016 on the sidelines of the session of the UN General Assembly. Can we nurture the hope to see the next, and possibly fruitful, meeting in September this year?

The Optimistic Horizon About JCPOA Is Still There (an interview with Iran Review)

Q: In the last decade, after experiencing Sarkozy's and Hollande's quinquennium, many were convinced that there is a trend or a strategy in French foreign policy, divergent from the past when it was almost always against Iran. This belief covers a very wide spectrum, but the main concern is somehow the same as your friends' viewpoint in "Club des Vingt": Given its history and values, France should be a mediator of peace, not an interventionist or somehow a provoker of tensions. In your idea, what should be the true interpretation of French attitude toward Iran and whole MENA?
A: The French have obviously turned the page of the negotiation period relating to the JCPOA. The Iranians also, by the way, Laurent Fabius, the then-Foreign Minister, was warmly welcomed in Tehran at the end of July 2015, just a few days after the adoption of the JCPOA in Vienna. So there are no hard feelings lagging behind. It is possible that the Iranians remember that, after all, it was the French, in the person of the then-French Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who took in 2003 the initiative to open a collective negotiation with Tehran, at a time when the dominant mood in the West was rather to confront Iran. This negotiation had its ups and downs, it morphed into different formats, but it never stopped until the final result in 2015. Now, for the future, we will have in France, as you now, a new President, a new government, and a new Assembly by mid-2017. I am confident that the new teams will give a fresh look at the French policy in the Middle East. and engage in favor of progress and reconciliation in the region.
Q: Precisely, as for the elections worldwide, 2017 would be a determinant year, where people can turn the page of their destiny. What is your estimation about dynamics of presidential election in France? Do you expect that there will be a person among the candidates who will change the French strategy toward Iran and MENA? 
A: Experience shows that a country's foreign policy seldom makes in a short time a complete U turn. Whatever the next Administration, there will be elements of continuity and elements of change. We have at the present moment a very unusual presidential campaign, as one can see in the French population a pervasive feeling of distrust of the traditional parties and the old elites. But there is also a fear of overly populist endeavours, like the one advocated by Marine Le Pen. All in all, whoever the next President, I guess that there will be an evolution of the French position in the Syrian crisis, and that pragmatic considerations will take precedence over matters of principle.
Q: You accompanied the optimistic ambiance around JCPOA. The agreement was supposed to allow Iran to continue its civilian nuclear program, and pave the way for normalization of Iran's economic and diplomatic relations with the international community. How do you evaluate the proceeding? In your opinion the optimistic horizon still exists for both diplomatic and economic relations?
A: The optimistic horizon is still there  but it has visibly receded from the place and time it occupied in our original hopes. The observers, in Iran as well as abroad, realize now that it takes quite a while for the economy of a country to be redirected on the right track : in the case of Iran, it will take at least one or two more years, and not the few months that we thought about when the JCPOA was adopted. But there are encouraging signals like, among many others, the significant rise of the Iranian steel production. The same reasoning goes for the opening of international relations. One has to remember that there was a lapse of seven years between the visit of Nixon to China and the reopening of the US and Chinese embassies!
Q: Maybe an important question about JCPOA philosophy is whether it has made any change in European or global view of the Iranian position or not? You saw the future of the agreement with Iran, depending on Europeans just as much as Trump. The idea of Europeans being independent and keeping their rational distance from U.S. is brilliant, but is it a call for reuniting Europe or is it due to the importance of JCPOA? If Trump  leaves the agreement regardless of the costs, what will guarantee the continuity of the Europeans’ engagement?
A: Up to now, the European Union has demonstrated a strong attachment to the JCPOA in front of the fluctuating positions of the new US President, and this is true also of the United Kingdom, in spite of the looming Brexit. I am convinced that the firm declarations of the European countries issued in the recent months, seperately as well as as together, are playing at this very moment a significant deterring effect on the American temptation to withdraw from the JCPOA. This political pressure must be maintained, as the danger comes from the Congress as much as from the President. It must be clear for the Americans that leaving the JCPOA would open for them a big risk to find themselves isolated from the international community. This is a kind of risk that nobody, even the US, can take lightheartedly. Let us keep up with this line of conduct as each passing day without crisis reinforces the sustainability of the JCPOA.
(April 9, 2017)