Prof. David Menashri assesses Iran’s strategy under President Rouhani

Following the talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran, Professor David Menashri assesses the strategy of the Iranian regime under President Hassan Rouhani. Professor Menashri is the founding director of the Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, President of the College of Law and Business at Ramat Gan, and one of Israel’s leading experts on Iran. You can listen to the interview in full here. The following is an edited transcript of his remarks.

Does the latest meeting of the Iranians with the P5+1 in Geneva tell us any more about how to read the new Iranian president?

The approach of the Iranians to the talks in Geneva was the third sign of change in recent months. The first was the election of Rouhani and the formation of his relatively pragmatic government. Then there was the charm offensive of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif at the UN General Assembly. Now this is being translated more specifically to the nuclear programme.

Their message in both New York and Geneva – and they took care to state this was with the permission of the Supreme Leader – was that they want to move in a new direction. We don’t know what exactly the Supreme Leader agreed to but it is clear that Iran has problems, is desperate to lift the sanctions, felt isolated in the world and is willing to reconsider its policy towards the nuclear issue and also towards the United States.

However, whatever was agreed in Geneva this week was not made public, and this reflects the delicacy for Iran of relations with the US and the sensitivity of the nuclear issue back home. When Rouhani’s team returned to Iran from New York last month they met with a mixed reception. Though many welcomed the change there was also a lot of criticism, particularly of the telephone call between President Rouhani and President Obama, and the meeting between Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry. It seems easier for Iran to digest concessions over the nuclear issue, than to swallow the change of attitudes towards the United States.

Is this just an attempt to buy time or get rid of some sanctions, rather than a genuine intention to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons?

Iran did not come to New York or Geneva to voluntarily retreat from its nuclear policy. They came because they are a country that responds to pressure and the sanctions have been very difficult to live with. Rouhani was elected primarily because Iran was isolated and the economy is in miserable shape. One of his election slogans was: ‘I will bring back to you the value of the Rial, and the value of your passport.’

However, Iran has a bad record of promising and not delivering. When Rouhani was chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, Iran agreed to suspend the nuclear programme. Then before the recent elections, when he was accused of stopping the nuclear programme, he responded by saying, ‘I completed the nuclear programme,’ and showed the steps that were taken in the period of ‘suspension’. So of course the world is suspicious.

Now Iran expects the West to remove the sanctions, which have been the main element forcing them to reconsider their policy. Keeping the transatlantic alliance in place is the only way to pressure Iran to continue with this process. There is a genuine strategic change in Iran and Rouhani and those close to him seem willing to change their policy. But it will take time, and whilst the process continues, the centrifuges continue to spin, and this is the challenge for the West.

If the Iranian regime is forced to accept that to lift the sanctions, its path to nuclear weapons will be blocked, will it accept that decision?

The Iranian regime has never admitted they have a nuclear military programme so if you ask them they will say, ‘we never wanted it’. But it is a major issue over whether we can trust the Iranians or not. It is going to take a lot of diplomacy to close the gaps, but it is new that the Iranians came with a proposal, so I think here is a genuine intention to change, at least by Zarif and his team. However, this is in the circle close to Rouhani. When they got back to Iran from New York last month they were heavily criticised by conservatives.

On the other hand, civil society in Iran is fed up with the difficulties and is calling for a change. Rouhani is backed by former President Rafsanjani. Even key conservative figures such speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani are now saying it is not necessarily bad to have relations with the US. Though nothing is guaranteed there is a hope for change. The problem is that when it comes to the complex nuclear issue, time is limited.

The regime has built its identity on opposition to the US, and of course to Israel. We see this in Iran’s relations with the US and its regional policies. Do you think Rouhani wants to change that?

This may be not their ideal but some of them feel forced to make the change. It is equivalent to the decision to end the war with Iraq in July 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini said: it would be sweeter for me to drink poison than sign an agreement with Saddam Hussein, but we don’t have a choice. Those in authority also have responsibility and they have to satisfy the demands which brought people to remove the Shah in 1979. The revolution was not about anti-Americanism, it was about greater freedom, better welfare and the dignity of the Iranian people.

In Israel we judge everything based on what they say about Israel. I don’t know for how long and how far Rouhani will maintain his mandate for change, but I would not judge Iran’s current politics by its statements about Israel. According to the philosophy of the Islamic revolution, they believe Soviet Communism has collapsed, American capitalism will collapse soon and Islamic ideology is the future. With such ambitions, Israel is peanuts, but it would be difficult to expect milder statements regarding Israel together with retreating from the call for ‘Death to America’.

With regard to attitudes to the US, there are some signs of change. In the Friday sermon a couple of weeks ago in Tehran, people started chanting ‘death to America’ and they were silenced from the podium. The meetings and telephone call during Rouhani’s trip to New York and the whole atmosphere are different from the days of former President Ahmadinejad.

So does their long term vision for the spread of the Islamic revolution remain the same, but deferred due to their short term problems?

I do not think they are withdrawing from their ideals altogether, but they are facing the issue of poverty in Iran, the problems in exporting oil, the devaluation of the Rial, which are leading them to reconsider their policies.

There is resentment among some Iranians over the engagement in countries far away – even the support for Hamas and Hezbollah – while the Iranian economy is in such a miserable state. The election in Iran forced the leadership to focus on solving Iran’s problems rather than the problems of the world. They did not abandon their ideals or politics, but the focus has been shifted to problems at home.

At the same time the ideologues – the Supreme Leader and many other conservative elements – continue to dream that they will change the world. It is important to remember that there are different faces to Iran. Rouhani and Zarif are showing the smiling face. The question is with how much authority and for how long.

So would you agree with the argument that it is vital to maintain pressure on Iran until all aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme have been dealt with? 

Yes, and this is the difficulty. The West expects them to first change their policy, whilst Iran wants first to see lifting of sanctions. But at least for the first time, after so long, there is a serious hope that diplomacy can find a solution.