Iran watchers have been right to throw some cold water on Friday’s surprising first-round outright victory by Hassan Rowhani. Rowhani has a very long history in the inner circles of the Islamic Republic’s power structure. He’s known Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for more than four decades, and has managed to avoid the post-2009 purges of reformists and moderates. That says something about his standing in Khamenei’s eyes, as does the fact that the Guardian Council approved him as the most prominent moderate in the eight-man field. They knew there was a significant chance he’d be the next president if they did so, and he is not powerful enough that they would have taken such a step out of fear. Khamenei can’t be thrilled by the election, but he can’t be panicked, either.
So Rowhani’s election isn’t the next step in some Iranian march to liberal democracy. But it is still a major moment in Iran’s history. Several of the other candidates were closer ideologically to Khamenei. Khamenei’s alleged favorite among these was his nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, whose platform seemed to center on bowing and scraping before the Leader. Yet Jalili finished a distant third. Khamenei had wanted the election to flip a middle finger to the West; Rowhani’s big result was a bit of a middle finger to Khamenei.
Yet Khamenei is hardly a loser in this election. In fact, it has strengthened the government’s relationship with the people by installing a figure with a popular mandate, a breath of air for a regime struggling with high inflation and high unemployment. It is also a vital realignment of the relationship between the various social classes and the state. For eight years, the government has been in the hands of a man of the masses. Many in the lower classes have appreciated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s money-slinging demagoguery. Yet Ahmadinejad’s tenure was far less friendly to the middle class, who have seen the economy distorted and public wealth routed away from them. Rowhani is likely to push for a more stable, predictable economy, the sort that middle classes around the world love. This should weaken the Ahmadinejad political economy, which is also a positive development for the government. The solidification of the Ahmadinejad social model’s dangerous rifts between the favored and unfavored classes would have eventually forced the regime to become much more openly dictatorial; the classes that would be on the losing end are telegenic and tech-savvy enough that the West would be deeply outraged by their repression. Rowhani’s rise should reduce domestic tensions, especially if a more stable economy can grow in ways that still help the lower classes.
What does all this mean for U.S. policy? Rowhani does not enjoy much power over the areas of Iranian policy that concern Washington the most—he could not stop Iran’s nuclear program, support for terrorists or proxy involvement in Syria if he wanted to. Yet he can set the tone of Iranian foreign policy, and he can moderate Khamenei’s hard-line instincts. He also won’t take the mystical, apocalyptic public tone that made Ahmadinejad such a bête noire in the West. If he becomes popular and successful, the Supreme Leader will have to take greater political risks to resist. As long as Khamenei trusts Rowhani, it is in U.S. interests to strengthen the latter.
The first step toward doing this, one which can be taken on day one of the Rowhani administration, is to establish a relationship. Iran’s next foreign minister, whomever he may be, should find a note from John Kerry on his desk when he walks in to his new office. This note should invite him to a one-on-one meeting with Kerry in a neutral country. Most importantly, there should be no agenda for the meeting and no joint press conference afterward—the focus must entirely be on getting a sense of each other’s concerns and making connections. This step will not go over well at home. But as Paul Pillar has pointed out in these spaces, it is “misguided” to think “that sitting down to talk constitutes some sort of reward for the party on the other side of the table—a reward to be bestowed only in return for good behavior.” At best, not talking increases the risk of miscalculation; at worst, it gives the spurned party incentive to misbehave. With the risk of war with Iran in the next few years very real, and with Iran playing a key role in a Syria conflict in which the United States has begun to dabble, miscalculation and misbehavior are both undesirable. Talking is the least bad option. Hassan Rowhani probably isn’t Iran’s savior, and he won’t restore good relations with Washington. But he’s a much better acquaintance to make than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.