Beware the Smiling Cleric

Beware the Smiling Cleric

The Iranian president's visit to New York could spur diplomacy—but don't get your hopes up.


There are a few reasons to be optimistic about Iranian president Hassan Rouhani coming to New York. Fresh off a major electoral victory this summer, there is no time like the present for a reformist to meet and greet the Great Satan. Likewise, a face-to-face meeting with a card-carrying member of the Axis of Evil could be a Nixonian moment for President Barack Obama. Groundbreaking political discourse and a thawing of relations might be the first step toward a changed relationship that could remake a Middle and Near East torn asunder by a decade of war, conflict and intense political rhetoric. President Obama would be wise to explore any diplomatic options for Washington. But he should do so carefully and pragmatically, and consider the underlying drivers pushing Tehran to seek détente. Beneath the surface are dynamics that more aptly define the political reality: deep economic and political fissures eroding Iran’s carefully orchestrated system of government.

Unlike in most democratic systems, President Rouhani is the constitutionally elected leader of a system that gives little to no real power to the Office of the President. As Khomeini did before him, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the final say on all affairs of state, with the president relegated to being a steward of day-to-day affairs, with symbolic influence only as far as Khamenei allows. This backdoor approach bears little resemblance to the ideals of any modern republic. Iran’s leadership has consistently favored the tools of authoritarianism, with less and less support for the democratic elements within this hybrid system of government. Yet they continue to utilize democratic tools of statecraft at times and places of their choosing. Indeed, no modern state could send a theocratic dictator to the United Nations and expect any weighty support beyond that from hardbought clientele. An elected individual, however, might be regarded as a palatable representative of the people of Iran and a legitimate leader with whom the West can do business.


Rouhani is a consummate insider of the Iranian establishment. With experience in all aspects of foreign policy and wide bureaucratic support from regime loyalists and centrists like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, there is no question he represents the interests of the system. This is a system bent on self-preservation, a system that was deeply shaken in the 2009 electoral protests and that has been focused on stabilization and empowering its guardians ever since. Political instability at home and economic pressure from sanctions are pushing them to the brink. Domestic and regional interests demand a half-hearted détente with the West to reinforce the system’s weakening legitimacy in the eyes of its people at home and around the world. No system of government fundamentally based on either a monarchical or theocratic legal framework can last in the long-term. Aa track record suggesting otherwise will not stop the clerical establishment from trying.

Might Rouhani be viewed as a vital emissary of the stakeholders within this system? That is certainly the hope for diplomats and key decision makers congregating in New York. Despite all the negative elements of Iranian government, they hope that this still could be a breakthrough for relations. If both parties can put aside their own domestic politics and focus on mutual interests at the international level, perhaps this common ground can lead to consensus on a host of issues that could benefit both states. This is a hopeful and positive approach, but one that should not be embraced absent careful consideration of the historical record. Reformist former president Mohammad Khatami spoke of a grand dialogue between civilizations, with little to show for it. Even the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arguably the most divisive figure in Iranian politics since 1979, could not make his boldest moves absent approval from Khamenei and his clerical brethren. If Rouhani can manage a more effective foreign policy without the consent of the system and Khamenei, it would be a revolutionary action in its own right.

There is little reason to believe Rouhani will be dramatically more effective than were Khatami or Ahmadinejad. He may be more active than Khatami and less combative than Ahmadinejad, but the final word still rests with Khamenei and his inner circle. They would not support any agenda that did not reinforce their position and strengthen allies on the home front. The system and its protectors are primarily concerned with self-preservation, and any American approach should zero in on that driving factor in their negotiations and remember that Tehran is playing to win the long game, not a short window of political opportunity. There is far more leverage available than any single issue suggests, and President Obama would be wise to consider all factors shaping the debate. Iran needs to make a deal and they need to make a deal now—otherwise economic and political vulnerabilities will come full circle.

Historical lessons suggest that systemic interests are driving the decisions in Tehran, and any diplomat should be wary in their approach, as the stakes are much higher for Iran than for the United States. The clerics and their bureaucratic allies understand that time is not on their side, and any breathing room afforded to them at this moment can only strengthen their dominance over the Iranian people. President Obama should pursue all available diplomatic options with Rouhani and support agreements favorable for the United States, but also remember that if friends are indeed to be friends, they must be honest with each other.

Michael Miner is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University, a member of the International Society for Iranian Studies, and the author of “The Coming Revolution: An Improbable Possibility – Systematic Governance in the Iranian State.”