Forget the Handshake. Here Are Iran President Rouhani’s Real Challenges

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Frank Franklin II / AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24, 2013

So Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will not, it seems, shake hands with U.S. President Barack Obama in a U.N. hallway. As their two delegations arrived on Tuesday morning at the U.N. General Assembly, speculation was rife that a meeting could take place on the sidelines — a first for the two countries’ leaders in more than 34 years. It was not to be — but there remain reasons for optimism. Rouhani swept the presidential election in a last-minute upset in June, raising expectations that he can simultaneously bring his country back into the international fold, repair relations with the U.S. and restart negotiations over Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program, all under the watchful eye of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has stated — numerous times — that there will be no compromises on Iran’s sovereignty. Actually meeting Obama would have likely been the easiest thing Rouhani did all week.

Khamenei sent Rouhani to the U.N. with his blessings to open the door to the possibility of nuclear negotiations. But what the Supreme Leader giveth, he can easily take away. Rouhani must balance the West’s demands for nuclear concessions and human-rights progress against red lines at home, respecting an old guard determined to protect Iran’s Islamic Revolution while delivering on his promises to a reformist youth bloc that ushered him into power. If he can’t deliver at home, he won’t get very far internationally. Here are five domestic issues with foreign policy implications he will have to navigate in order to pull off the impossible task of pleasing all of the people all of the time.

Political Prisoners
On the eve of Rouhani’s departure for New York City, his government announced that some 80 political prisoners would be pardoned — fulfilling one of Rouhani’s early campaign promises. Many of the prisoners, including journalists, bloggers and human-rights activists, had been jailed for their involvement in the Green movement — mass demonstrations sparked by the allegedly fraudulent re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, which were brutally suppressed. “Rouhani is showing voters that he is fulfilling his promises, and demonstrating to Obama that he can deliver on sensitive issues,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of several books on Iran. It was an adept move, demonstrating to the West Rouhani’s ability to control the levers of power within Iran, without making a concession to the U.S. that would weaken his standing at home. Now, says Parsi, “when Obama looks Rouhani in the eye and says ‘How do I know you can deliver on the nuclear issue?’ he can say ‘I just released 80 political prisoners. When was the last time you won against Congress?’”

But the real test is yet to come. Green movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist candidates defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2009, are still under house arrest. Their release is one of the biggest demands of Rouhani’s reform constituency, but doing so risks rattling Iran’s old guard.

Personal Freedoms
When Iranians discovered early last week that they could directly access Facebook and Twitter for the first time since the 2009 protests, they believed Rouhani was coming through on another key campaign promise, opening up the Internet and loosening cumbersome restrictions on personal freedoms. The euphoria was short-lived: less than 12 hours later the government filters were back in place, the whole episode a “technical glitch,” according to the government authority that governs cyberspace in Iran. But hopes are high that Rouhani will eventually come through. After all, he did send out Jewish New Year greetings on what is thought to be his personal Twitter account (@HassanRouhani) earlier in the month, and on Sept. 22, just before he got on the plane for New York City, he promised, via Twitter (and in English) to “introduce citizens’ rights charter soon. We want to see people completely free in their private lives.” What that means is still unclear, however.

Will the hated religious police still take women to task for exposing too much hair under their mandatory headscarves on the streets, or demand proof of marriage from couples caught holding hands at a restaurant? It’s not just young Iranians who care. Loosening restrictions on personal freedoms could indirectly have an impact on international sanctions, says Parsi, who points out that the E.U. joined the sanctions regime largely out of a concern for Iran’s miserable human-rights record under Rouhani’s predecessor Ahmadinejad. “If the Europeans see that Iran is moving in the right direction, releasing political prisoners, opening up the Internet and allowing more personal freedoms, they will want to lessen sanctions,” says Parsi.

When it comes to supporting the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, Iran is in a bind. The Syrian regime is Iran’s only Arab ally, and a key logistics hub for its support of Hizballah in neighboring Lebanon — important as deterrence against archenemy Israel. But domestically speaking, the Iranian government’s financial and political support for Assad is very unpopular. Iranians are already sensitive about being international pariahs for their government’s intransigence on the nuclear issue, and don’t want to be lumped in with a Syrian regime that has earned worldwide opprobrium for its brutality. They also resent the fact that despite a financial crisis, significant amounts of money are being disbursed to help Hizballah and Assad. But even on such a significant alliance as Syria’s, Rouhani has demonstrated a willingness to make concessions. When the U.S. threatened strikes against Assad’s government in the wake of the Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs, Rouhani made no mention of retaliation. Instead, he offered to help in the anticipated aftermath, telling a panel of Islamic theologians in Tehran on Sept. 10, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will do its religious and humanitarian duty and send food and medicine.” Without assigning blame to either side in the Syria conflict, Rouhani has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons in speeches and on Twitter, “because the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself a victim of chemical weapons.” While Russia took the lion’s share of the credit, it’s quite likely that Iranian pressure pushed Assad to acquiesce to joining the international convention against chemical weapons, declaring the extent of his stockpile and offering it up for destruction in the process.

But Iran still has forces in Syria, in the form of Revolutionary Guard consultants, and has helped train and supply Assad’s soldiers, according to a recent investigative report by the Wall Street Journal. As a major actor in the Syrian conflict and a principal supplier of arms and financing to the regime, Iran can play a significant role in pressuring Assad to enter into negotiations. But only if it is allowed to. So far the U.S., and its allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, has resisted including Iran in the upcoming Geneva II discussions about a transition plan for Syria. “Once they are in Geneva, I think they can do a lot,” says Parsi. “But I doubt that they will do much if they are not part of the process.” Iran’s role in a future Syria solution is as much a test for Rouhani as it is for the U.S.

Even without sanctions the country, shackled as it is to ruinous subsidy programs, suffers from eight years of Ahmadinejad’s bad economic policy. It is likely to take even longer to set the country’s finances right. But with a rapidly growing population, calamitous unemployment figures and runaway inflation, Rouhani doesn’t have the luxury of time. The quickest way to improve the economy, without taking the unpopular step of removing food and fuel subsidies, is loosening sanctions. But that requires difficult compromises on Iran’s fiercely defended nuclear program. Even if Iran won’t give up the program per U.S. demands, flexibility on Rouhani’s part may help delegitimize some sanctions, at least in Europe, providing some relief and allowing him to maintain support at home.

Nuclear Negotiations
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week, Rouhani laid out his vision for Iran’s successful engagement with the West, as well as his case for continuing Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program: “To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.” That is likely to become the biggest sticking point in any future negotiations. The U.S. wants to substantially limit the degree of enrichment, to the point of stopping it entirely, the better to preclude Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons on the side. Iran, for its part, says it has no intention to create such devices, and only plans to build nuclear reactors for energy production, medical use and research. In moving the nuclear-negotiations portfolio from the hard-line Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, headed by the new President’s hand-selected deputy Mohammad Javad Zarif, Rouhani has at least been able to dial down the bombast. The next step will be even more delicate. Rouhani will be able to address some U.S. concerns about the nuclear program in upcoming discussions, but if those tentative compromises are not immediately, and demonstrably, met with reciprocal relief from sanctions, it could be the death knell for Rouhani’s engagement strategy, and a return to Iran’s hard-line stance. Trusting the U.S. may be Rouhani’s biggest test yet.