Iran: Western Sanctions Helped Elect Rohani - Will They Undermine Him Now?

Iranian voters rejected the regime's hard line on the nuclear issue that led to a deep economic crisis. Now whether Hossan Rohani softens Iran's stance also depends on the West.

Rohani shifted the conversation
Rohani shifted the conversation
Christophe Ayad and Serge Michel


PARIS - Did the West's economic sanctions, those controversial diplomatic “weapons,” actually lead to the surprise victory of the most moderate candidate in the Iranian presidential campaign?

That explanation alone would be forgetting the irrepressible thirst for freedom of the Iranian youth and the great mobilization of the “green” reform movement that helped Hassan Rohani win the June 14 election in the first round, with 50.7% of the votes.

The Iranian voters bitter about outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s catastrophic record are the ones who were key to this victory, qualified as a “divine surprise” by the urban population. The results were celebrated in most of the country’s cities as soon as they became official on Saturday night.

They celebrated the end of eight years of Ahmadinejad presidency, synonymous with economic crisis, isolation and confrontation with the West on the issue of Iran's nuclear program.

Until now, no one had publicly claimed a connection between the catastrophic state of the country’s economy (inflation above 30%; 25% unemployment rate and even higher for the youth) and the government’s unwielding stance on the nuclear program.

While the regime was busy accusing western injustice, it should have been busy overcoming the sanctions by diversifying its economy and enforcing a “resistance” policy.

But then reality kicked back: revenue from oil dropped to half its levels of 2011 and 2012; the automotive industry collapsed (from 1.5 million to 1 million between 2011 and 2012 and expected to dip to 500,000 in 2013); difficulties in paying wages; imported medication absent from the shelves and national currency losing 75% of its value in a year and a half.

Every Iranian knows this, but it took a fight between the presidential candidates on which policy to adopt to make the voters feel free to express the discontent with their ballots. The presidential campaign was going according to script until the third televised debate on June 7 between the eight remaining candidates.

Sensing a change in the wind, hardliner Said Jalili attacked Rohani who had negotiated the nuclear dossier for Iran from 2003 to 2005, and accused him of caving into the West, and therefore betraying the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

In the light of day

Rohani responded forcefully that his decision to suspend the program in autumn 2003 had prevented Iran from being the target of the UN Security Council, while the team that succeeded him racked up four resolutions of condemnation.

Ali-Akbar Velayati, a candidate close to the Leader, took on Jalili too, saying that “diplomacy is not a minbar,” the chair on which the sermons are proclaimed.

For the first time, what used to be kept for private discussions was now exposed in the light of day.

Iranians finally understood that the conservatives were in fact quite divided over the issue, and candidates were ruled by their emotions to the point that they were not respecting the Leader who remains the true head of the Iranian State. The withdrawal of the only other reformer candidate, Mohamed Aref, finished the job for Rohani.

It is significant that the nuclear issue hadn’t been discussed before it came up in the debate. The Iranians had been judging their leaders more for how they were handling negotiations, rather than on the nuclear program itself.

“The sanctions failed to stop the Iranian Nuclear program and change the regime,” says Bernard Hourcade, research director at France's national scientific research center (CNRS). “But they did weaken and isolate Iran, and the Iranians had had enough.”

For Ali Khamenei, the election of Rohani isn’t such a bad outcome: as the leader is recovering bits of his popularity lost since 2009, when he had to back the shady reelection of Ahmadinejad. He may now send onto the international stage someone he completely trusts, someone who will earn more respect than his predecessor who'd been discredited by his blaring declarations on the Holocaust and Israel.

But what Rohani actually can offer will also depend on the West.

His election was saluted by Washington which declared the US was “ready to cooperate directly” on the nuclear issue. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough sees in this vote a “potential sign of hope.” The monarchies of the Gulf, longing for Iran’s withdrawal in Syria, also welcomed this electoral turn of events.

On the other hand, Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who is going to have a harder time convincing people of the “need” to bomb Iran, urged the international community not to “trust illusions,” and to put an end to the Iranian nuclear program “by all means necessary.”

Instead of a new regime or even a new policy, the West was delivered a new atmosphere. Will they help Rohani, facing an entire nation’s high expectations, in his endeavors? The 2003 events don’t indicate this will pan out: Rohani hadn't obtained much from the program's suspension. And in 2005, it was back on track.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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