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Iran Nuclear Deal Is a Win for Rouhani. What’s Next?

Haleh Esfandiari

"President Rouhani’s approach has been to get crippling sanctions lifted as part of a nuclear deal, revive Iran’s economy, create jobs, and build confidence in the West--–all as a basis to address the other issues," writes Haleh Esfandiari.

For 20 months, since Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sat down with Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, Iranians followed the negotiations over their country’s nuclear program with expectation and anxiety. They pored over news, formal statements, and rumors about the talks. They tried to interpret the body language of Mr. Zarif, Mr. Kerry, and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs. The negotiations were the subject of chatter in cafes and at family dinner tables. When an agreement was announced Tuesday, citizens’ sense of relief was palpable–but experience has taught Iranians to temper their enthusiasm and hopes.

Cynics said President Hassan Rouhani would turn out to be yet another bombastic politician who fails to deliver. The deal is a considerable achievement for Mr. Zarif and Mr. Rouhani, who staked his presidency on the negotiations’ success. During his first two years in office, President Rouhani spoke about the need to rein in Iran’s morals policy and security agencies, give more freedom to students on university campuses, stop official interference with the Internet, and reduce the Revolutionary Guards’ outsize role in the economy. But these issues took a back seat. While prioritizing the negotiations, he has failed to secure freedom for numerous journalists, female activists, and other political prisoners. He has left the Revolutionary Guards to pursue their economic activities. Leaders of the opposition Green Movement remain under house arrest. Talk of easing tensions with Saudi Arabia went unfulfilled. President Rouhani’s approach has been to get crippling sanctions lifted as part of a nuclear deal, revive Iran’s economy, create jobs, and build confidence in the West–all as a basis to address the other issues.

Mr. Rouhani remained determined, and he was adept at outmaneuvering critics. He defended the framework agreement announced in April against fierce opposition. He managed to transfer authority for approval of the final agreement from parliament, where he faces much opposition, to the Supreme National Security Council, where he has greater control. He faced down hard-liners in influential right-wing media outlets such as the newspaper Kayhan and the Web site Raja News, which faulted the Lausanne framework and deemed the final accord no cause for celebration. He understood when to reply to naysayers and when to ignore them. He took on serious critics in parliament, but he ignored one of his predecessors, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reacted to the deal by quoting a hadith from the seventh-century Imam Ali that one should be “deeply afraid of your enemy when s/he reaches out to you in peace and compromise.”

Above all, President Rouhani succeeded at keeping Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on board. The ayatollah publicly questioned U.S. trustworthiness and reliability. He supported Iran’s negotiating team but expressed skepticism throughout the talks. He was not for the negotiations, the supreme leader said, nor was he against them. President Rouhani persuaded him to allow the talks to continue, and Khamenei seems to have given the accord his grudging blessing.

Mr. Zarif and his team proved to be skillful negotiators. They avoided pitfalls of demanding or giving up too much. They crossed many “red lines” but preserved language that allows Iran to say all its essential demands were met. To ordinary Iranians, it was the negotiating team’s persistence and insistence on their country’s rights that produced an agreement. Mr. Zarif has become Iran’s most popular non-political government official. When Mr. Zarif  returned to Tehran after the Lausanne framework was announced in April, he was greeted with wild enthusiasm. This time, the foreign minister had the negotiators’ plane stop in Mashad so the team could pray and give thanks at the city’s famous shrine. Possibly because his opponents did not want Mr. Zarif to receive another hero’s welcome, the timing of his arrival in Tehran was not announced beforehand.

President Rouhani still has much to do. He needs Iranians to be patient: Sanctions will be lifted only gradually, and it will take time for oil production and exports to increase, for Iran’s foreign assets to be unfrozen, for foreign investment to flow in, and for the economy to improve. Perhaps, after those issues are in motion, he will fulfill his other election promises and find ways to rein in the security agencies and judiciary, to ease political controls, to give more freedom to Iranians, and address other issues generating friction between Iran, its Arab neighbors, and the West.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

About the Author

Haleh Esfandiari

Haleh Esfandiari

Public Policy Fellow;
Former Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more