Timing Iran: Broaching the U.S.-Iran Divide Would Have Been Easier Ten Years Ago

Mohammad Khatami (third from right) joined John Kerry, David Ignatius, and officials from the Arab League, Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2007.  Image: World Economic Forum.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's election calls to mind the missed opportunity that the United States had during President Mohammad Khatami’s administration to change Iran through the application of diplomacy. While Rouhani’s rhetoric, his cabinet, and overtures to the West remind many of Khatami, his approach is not nearly as substantial and his dealings with Iran’s Guardian Council not as contentious. While the West should welcome the opportunity to negotiate with the Rouhani administration, it should do so knowing that neither Rouhani nor his relationship with the Guardian Council constitutes a redux of the Khatami administration.

The Khatami Administration

President Khatami’s dealings with the Guardian Council, majlis (parliament), judiciary, and security forces were challenging. Upon his taking of office in 1998, the other branches of the Iranian government worked to prevent the realization of Khatami’s goals of reform and liberalization by impeaching members of Khatami’s cabinet, imprisoning supporters, and shutting down scores of reformist newspapers.

However, when the majlis swung reformist in the February 2000 parliamentary elections, it set about implementing Khatami’s reformist agenda by passing bills that would have protected press freedoms, reduced the judiciary’s ability to censure, increased the majlis’s oversight of security forces, and reduced the Guardian Council’s power to disqualify parliamentary candidates. The Guardian Council later blocked all of these measures.

In the first three years of Khatami’s presidency, his efforts of outreach to the West had about the same level of success as majlis’s efforts to wrest power from the mullahs. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed the dynamic. President Khatami, without consulting the Guardian Council, condemned the attacks. Chants of “Death to America,” heard following Friday prayers at mosques throughout Iran for over two decades, stopped. The grounds for rapprochement were laid and provided Khatami the opportunity to build more domestic support if reconciliation with the United States met with success.

On January 29, 2002, the Guardian Council received support from an unexpected source: the President of the United States. In his State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran as one of three countries constituting an “Axis of Evil,” even though Iran provided intelligence on and helped to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. A little over a year later, U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq and shortly thereafter captured Baghdad. The United States now occupied the two countries sharing Iran’s eastern and western borders and—once a perceived threat—became an existential threat to the Islamic Republic.

Fearing an invasion and under attack by conservatives at home, the Khatami administration made its best pitch to the United States. It offered to endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue; end support to Hamas, the militant wing of Hezbollah, and all other terrorist activity originating from Iranian territory; make fully transparent Iran’s nuclear program; and assist in stabilizing Iraq. In exchange, it sought a “halt in U.S. hostile behavior and rectification of status of Iran in the U.S.,” including exclusion from the Axis of Evil and removal from the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, among other aims.

The United States never replied to Iran’s offer. In Iran’s 2004 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council disqualified 87 reformist incumbents running for reelection, and the majlis swung conservative. The following year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami as president, and the opportunity for rapprochement between the United States and Iran evaporated.

The Rouhani Administration

Policymakers looking for an opportunity like the one lost in the wake of 9/11 see reason for optimism in the 2013 election of President Rouhani. Of the six candidates who ran for president, Rouhani was by far the least conservative. After winning the election by an overwhelming margin, Rouhani placed several Khatami-era officials in his cabinet. Like Khatami, Rouhani has made outreach to the West, and the United States in particular, a key issue. However, these similarities are superficial and the circumstances under which the two administrations governed substantially different.

Previously, Rouhani burnished his conservative credentials when, as Deputy Speaker of the majlis and member of the conservative party ruling it, he participated in the impeachment of reformists serving in the Khatami administration. Rather than joining the reformist wave that swept through the majlis in February 2000, he succumbed to it.

Moreover, neither Iran’s internal dynamics nor outside pressure hint at an opportunity to effect change through applying diplomatic power. The relationship between Iran’s elected and unelected bodies today is not nearly as contentious, if at all, as it was during Khatami’s presidency. Finally, the economic sanctions levied against Iran, while severe, do not approximate the existential threat of a United States military that had just overthrown the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The lack of relative pressure on the Iranian regime is reflected in the current negotiations over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Whereas the Khatami administration made an offer post-9/11 that would have fundamentally changed the U.S.-Iran relationship, Rouhani’s offer made no mention of Israel or removal of support for militant groups operating in the Middle East. His willingness to open Iran’s declared nuclear facilities to inspection and to reduce, but not eliminate, uranium enrichment are relatively minor concessions in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. An acceptance of Khatami’s offer would have widened the gulf between Iran’s elected officials and the Guardian Council; an acceptance of Rouhani’s offer would reflect the Guardian Council’s wishes.

That the opportunity for a rapprochement between the United States and Iran rarely presents itself is hardly surprising. Since 1979, the only opportunity for such a rapprochement occurred when a catastrophic event coincided with a power struggle within Iran. Since then, the Guardian Council has taken steps to ensure that such an opportunity, however remote, does not happen again. The United States cannot expect a reformist to ascend to the Iranian presidency any more than it would welcome a national catastrophe to take advantage of it. Little about Rouhani or Iran’s domestic situation should lead the United States to think otherwise.