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.