The Iranian election — the foreign policy establishment’s take

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs (Subcommittee on the Middle East and Northern Africa) held a hearing yesterday on the Iranian elections. Wanting to know more about the subject, and to see our friend Tom Cotton in action, I attended.

Tom delivered a strong opening statement in which he made it clear that in order to justify any change in U.S. policy toward Iran, the regime must do more than hold seriously flawed elections. The good news was that the Democrats on the Subcommittee took basically the same position, at least in their public remarks. No one on the subcommittee appeared to believe that the Iranian election should engender optimism.

However, the three witnesses before the Subcommittee found reason to view the election results as a sign that Iran may be about to change course. These witnesses, I take it, represent the view of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The witnesses were Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

I tend to agree with the pessimistic position expressed by Tom and other subcommittee members. But having previously presented (in “eight takeaways”) a case for strong skepticism about the elections I thought that, in the interest of balance, I would present the takeaways from the more optimistic view expressed at yesterday’s hearing.

1. Sanctions are working in the sense that they are having an enormous negative impact on the Iranian economy.

2. The mandate for the newly elected Rouhani is to turn the economy around. This is his mandate from both the people who voted for him and from the “Supreme Leader” who permitted his election. The latter fears instability if the economy isn’t fixed.

3. The economy cannot be fixed if current sanctions remain in place.

4. Rouhani’s mandate, therefore, is to cause a lifting of these sanctions.

5. Rouhani can only accomplish this if Iran steps back from its drive to obtain nuclear weapons.

6. The regime might well have permitted Rouhani’s election because it’s looking for him to obtain a deal with the West on its nuclear program as a way out of the box Iran is in. In this sense, the regime views Rouhani, with his experience as a nuclear negotiator, as “a fixer.”

7. The West should therefore embrace the opportunity presented by Rouhani’s election and seriously attempt to negotiate a deal.

8. The test will be whether Rouhani comes up with a serious negotiating position, as he did ten years ago. Applying this test, we should be able quickly to tell whether negotiations hold promise.

9. Fears expressed by subcommittee members from both political parties that Rouhani’s election will cause a weakening of the sanctions coalition’s resolve are unfounded.

10. Rouhani’s election won’t change Iran’s hard line toward Israel or its policy in Syria. These will continue to be dictated by the regime and, in any case, there’s little reason to think that Rouhani dissents.

This appears to be the conventional wisdom in Washington right now. Whether it constitutes actual wisdom is another matter.

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