Last month, I met two well-informed Iranian scholars who are close to President Hassan Rouhani and his new team now firmly in power in Tehran. They both insist Iran is at a turning point, following the election of the new president and there is something real and big happening in Tehran.
Rouhani has already delivered on many of his election promises to pursue a new approach to domestic and international affairs. At the core of this new policy is a less confrontational policy towards the West.
Rouhani means business and the changes he is undertaking are not mere superficial and cosmetic. He intends to change the very substance and direction of Iran’s foreign policy away from eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which took Iran nowhere.
Not only does Iran have a new president, but there is also a new team, a different language and, above all, Iran is now pursuing a new set of policy priorities. They advise the neighbouring Arab Gulf states to listen attentively and respond positively to this once-upon-a-time window of opportunity to lessen regional tensions and get the Gulf Cooperation Council-Iran relationship back on track.
No one denies that in his first 100 days in office, Rouhani has introduced a change in style. And, style in foreign policy and international relations matters a great deal. It has a logic of its own and eventually creates a dynamic chain reaction and occasionally leads to changes in the essence of foreign policy too. And if there is one thing that is beyond doubt, Rouhani’s moderate and charming style is vastly different from the confrontational demeanour and discourse of Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani’s pragmatism is not to be confused with Mohammad Khatami’s moderate approach during his presidency from 1997 to 2005. Iran’s new president is a much more seasoned politician, not an intellectual. He is an insider with deep knowledge of the complex Iranian system — he knows the system inside out and is highly trusted by the competing factions.
Unlike Khatami, he is also very close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, considered the most powerful political authority in Iran. He knows how to approach him and apparently has his full blessing in his endeavour to tilt Iran onto a new, more moderate and conciliatory course towards the outside world.
The language of the past 100 days of Rouhani presidency is also notably gentle and non-threatening. His first speech to the United Nations General Assembly was vastly different from the inflammatory utterances of Ahmadinejad.
Language means a lot in foreign policy and Iranians value the power of discourse the most. To them, words are as powerful and as good as actions. They listen attentively to what is being said and expect the outside world to listen carefully to the new message of “flexibility” coming out from Tehran.
Clearly, the message from Tehran is: We are ready for negotiation, compromise and to make friends not enemies. Iran is relaxing the fist and extending the hand to all, including the ‘Big Satan’ America.
There is also a new team in Tehran these days, which is presumably less ideological. The new foreign policy team headed by Mohammad Jawad Zarif is certainly more professional. Many think it is the most experienced and competent foreign policy team that Iran has had since 1979. For the first time in many years, Iran’s diplomatic corps, not the Revolutionary Guards, are in the driver’s seat, at least for the time being.
But it is not just the team, the language and the style that has changed with the arrival of the new president. Iran presumably has a set of new foreign policy priorities as well. Probably out of financial and economic necessities, Iran is dead serious about engaging the international community to set aside the lingering concerns about its highly controversial nuclear programme. Closing all misunderstandings about Iran’s nuclear intentions and easing the economic sanctions top Iran’s foreign policy agenda.
The ‘flexible’ Iran intends to close this chapter as soon as possible and accept a deal even if it is the second best. The “freeze for freeze” (freeze enrichment in exchange for freeze on oil and the financial sanction) deal has been the subject of an intensive Geneva meeting last week.
Once the nuclear deal is done, second and third on Iran’s foreign policy priority is settling the Syrian conflict, which has been very costly to Iran so far, and lessening tensions with neighbouring Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.
Should the Arab Gulf states take Rouhani more seriously? The Arab Gulf states will greatly benefit from any lessening of regional tensions. They feel secure with a more transparent nuclear programme in Iran. They welcome the new language of moderation, but they have some immediate concerns of their own.
First and foremost, they want Iran to stop its interference in their internal affairs, especially with regard to Bahrain. The UAE will urge the new president to show “flexibility” and respond to repeated calls for a just settlement of the three islands dispute between the two countries — either through direct, serious negotiation or by referral to the International Court of Justice.
This is the ultimate test for mutual respect and good neighbourly relationship and will be a definitive proof that Iran has changed — not just in style, but in substance too.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of Political Science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE