The Buzz

Nobel Peace Prize for Rouhani?

A Guardian readers’ poll released Monday suggested that new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani should be given this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. (A poll of Guardian readers, I should note, is not the most mainstream endorsement—Edward Snowden, the leaker formerly known as Bradley Manning and Greenpeace were other top contenders, and the most popular article on the Guardian’s website today is an essay about an artist who photographs his mother having sex.) The bookies don’t agree—teenage womens’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege are their favorites. Giving Rouhani a Nobel this year would be premature. His accomplishments so far are tentative—he’s freed a few political prisoners, he’s made some vaguely liberal gestures, he’s made a phone call. And, as the Guardian Iran correspondent who nominated Rouhani to the readers notes, he’s “put an end to the embarrassment of the Ahmadinejad years.” A Rouhani Nobel on such grounds would put him in the same controversial category as Barack Obama, who won the prize after only a few months in office, ostensibly for his opposition to nuclear weapons but with reference to how “his diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population”—a tacit slap to George W. Bush’s perceived unilateralism. And as was the case with Obama’s Nobel, the selection committee would likely have buyer’s remorse in the following years. Politics tends to cut idealistic figures down to size, and expectations for Rouhani in some Western circles surpass anything he could deliver, let alone what he would deliver.

So it would be silly to give Rouhani the Nobel this year, even if the prize has been cheapened by its recent shift away from the bloody men who actually make peace and toward more cuddly humanitarian figures. Yet a Rouhani Nobel could significantly increase the odds of good outcomes in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani’s approach has caused a political earthquake in Iran, and hardline government figures have, remarkably, offered him public support. But it’s not clear how long that will continue if negotiations get serious. Iranian hardliners continue to believe that the West and especially America cannot be satisfied by any Iranian concession, that we will always hunger for more, that we will not stop until the Islamic Republic falls. The last moderate administration seemed to confirm this narrative—Iran made a number of gestures on the nuclear issue and had some cooperation with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in return was branded a member of the “Axis of Evil.” The moderates were humiliated.

A Rouhani Nobel, however undeserved, could create a mirror image of the Axis of Evil effect. Rouhani’s allies in Iran would brand the prize a triumph. “After so many years of rejection by the West,” they might say, “our approach has earned Iran one of the West’s highest honors! Iran has been accepted by the world without changing its fundamental nature and without humiliating itself.” Hardliners could only reply that the prize is a sign that Rouhani is too close to the West, or that the West is trying to seduce Iran into weakness, or that the Norwegian parliament has become a nest of Zionist intrigue. Most Iranians would favor the moderates’ reasoning. Rouhani winning the Nobel Peace Prize would be a moment of tremendous national pride. This would further establish Rouhani as a powerful figure in his own right. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would have to expend more political capital if he ever feels the need to bring Rouhani to heel. That all adds up to more leverage for Rouhani on the nuclear issue. That’s the best plausible outcome for the United States. And if nothing else, a preemptive Nobel would give Obama and Rouhani something in common for their next phone call.