Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, former President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei walk into a soda parlor.
“I’ll have a Coke,” says Rouhani.
“Make that two!” Khamenei chimes gleefully.
“Make that three,” declares Khatami.
Just then, Khamenei whips back around and whispers to the bartender, “On second thought, I’ll take a Pepsi.”
International headlines suggesting a new age in U.S.-Iranian diplomatic talks have been met with equal parts optimism and skepticism. On one hand, Rouhani’s talks of détente on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program have left foreign policy experts hopeful for a new partnership. Critics, however, suggest that Iran’s new openness to talks is, at best, a farcical attempt to appear moderate. Even worse, some suspect that, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested, Iran is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” itching to further their nuclear program under a facade of diplomacy.
The U.S.-Iranian relationship, now teetering on the precipice of significant change, came to a head at the United Nations two weeks ago, when a near handshake between President Barack Obama and Rouhani left the world buzzing. The gesture, which would’ve marked the most symbolically significant exchange between the countries in nearly 34 years, never came to fruition. White House pool reports suggested that such an exchange would’ve been “too complicated” for Rouhani in Iran.
This is a point of importance. Rouhani’s legitimacy with respect to domestic politics is nuanced. As president, he remains subservient to Khamenei, without whose support talks of diplomacy are altogether unsubstantial.
Rouhani’s reformist rhetoric has been compared to that of Khatami. Fortunately, his relationship with Khamenei is much different.
During Khatami’s presidency, Khamenei served as a relatively staunch adversary, countering Khatami’s desire to liberalize with clerical strictness. Though both desired to preserve the republic, they were reported in 2001 as having particularly “different views on the direction that Iran should take.”
This seems to be less of an issue in the case of Rouhani. Khamenei has shown to be, on the whole, supportive of Rouhani’s reformist tendencies. He was quoted just a week ago as saying, “We are optimistic about our dear government’s diplomatic envoy.”
In the wake of “eight years of former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bad economic policy,” the rest of Rouhani’s legitimacy as a diplomatic negotiator will rely on visible economic improvements to generate domestic support.
The U.S. should become acquainted with this reality and begin to ease sanctions in the near-term.
For one, as researchers at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, led by Dina Esfandiary, observed with regard to Iranian sanctions, “The biggest losers … are middle-class Iranians.” For upper-class Iranian politicians and businessmen, often most instrumental in the nuclear program, circumventing sanctions isn’t difficult. As Adam Szubin, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control — which supervises American enforcement of the sanctions — explains, members of the superclass avoid sanctions by “using private exchange houses and trading companies in other countries, masking transactions with fake identities and relying on the paperless practice known as hawala, in which money is transferred informally and often illegally through trustworthy couriers.”
The import of Chinese and Russian nuclear intelligence has also allowed parts of the nuclear program to survive despite the sanctions.
In order for Rouhani to secure legitimacy from the Iranian people, sanctions, which inordinately hamper the wrong people in Iran, must be lessened in the near-term. It is the only means by which talks may transition from concepts to reality — from handshakes to policy.
Critics who claim that harder sanctions would more effectively persuade Iran to come to the table ignore the nuances involved in Iranian domestic politics and risk stifling long-term progress.
For Rouhani to truly converse, there will need to be top-down support from Khamenei and bottom-up support from the people. Khatami only had the people — the wrong half. So far, Rouhani has the right half. Iran’s no angel, but if there’s any hope for progress, we must help him secure the second half.
Let’s ease sanctions in the near-term before this round of diplomacy, like flat soda, fizzles out.