The election of Hassan Rowhani has brought a new sense of optimism to the international community. The Iranians are suddenly making the right sounds. And even Congress, after years of increasing hawkishness, briefly changed its tone as over a hundred lawmakers called for dialogue with Iran.
But have things really changed? Does it really matter who is sitting in the presidential palace in Tehran? The standard line of the supporters of the status quo is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls the shots. But things are never that simple in the Islamic Republic. Rather than a pyramid, Iranian decision-making resembles a pentagon.
As Harvard Kennedy School professor Graham Allison puts it, “even in hierarchies in which the leader must formally make the final decision, the nature, timing and content of his/her choice are substantially affected by the interaction with many other seemingly lesser beings.”
If Rowhani is prematurely dismissed as ineffectual, the international community will miss its best opportunity to make progress on the nuclear issue in a decade.
The new Iranian president can’t change Iran’s nuclear stance on his own. But he can shape it by building consensus among the actors with influence over Khamenei, a strategy that can described as “decision-shaping.”
At its heart, this revolves around efforts to “prepare” the ground for a specific decision to be made. This “preparation” can be done via several avenues.
Six of the thirteen members of Iran’s national-security council, which decides on nuclear strategy, are under the president’s direct supervision. He’d therefore be wise to leverage the channels used to prepare the ground for a decision before council meetings. These so-called “action channels” often lead to the Leader and his closest advisors because nuclear-related decisions need to avoid Khamenei’s veto.
One of the president’s key decision-shaping tools is setting the agenda when the council meets. Utilizing his “action channels” to get Khamenei’s informal approval of a particular approach prior to a council meeting, and then utilizing his men to push for it during the meeting, will therefore exponentially increase its chances of being adopted. This is lobbying, Iranian-style. Rowhani is well-versed in this art. When he was chief nuclear negotiator, he effectively utilized the council’s secretariat to set the agenda, and then coordinated with the executive branch to advance his strategy. No doubt, Rowhani’s long experience of working closely with the Leader makes him uniquely suited to bring Khamenei on board with his vision.
There are also more direct ways for Rowhani to exert influence. During his campaign, he recounted one route: “if you give those who make decisions one scenario, you’ll get one answer. If you provide two scenarios, you’ll receive two answers. I pledge to realistically look at the situation and come up with scenarios to deliver to decision-makers, apart from the government, so they can make decisions with minimum cost and maximum benefit.”
Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to influence nuclear policy because he couldn’t use these same “action channels” to build consensus and shape decisions in the national-security council.
In contrast, barely three weeks into his term, Rowhani has already taken practical action that evidences his resolve to, in his own words, “hammer things out with the sheriff.” Javad Zarif, a former UN envoy who’s repeatedly dealt with Americans, has been appointed as foreign minister and is mulled as the next chief negotiator. A pragmatic, MIT-educated nuclear physicist has been returned as head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. And Tehran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency has been recalled.
But getting the right people onboard doesn’t only have to do with correcting the perceived errors of the past eight years. Negotiations on the nuclear issue face more than political pitfalls; Rowhani has first-hand experience of bureaucratic incompetence and dysfunction disrupting negotiations. He saw how divergent reporting of the situation by various Iranian institutions repeatedly triggered clashes over their competing recommendations to senior authorities.
Yet, perhaps more than anything, Rowhani’s ability to shape decisions on the nuclear issue will be founded on his general approach to politics at home. He has fervently argued that negotiations will only bear fruit when there’s national cohesion. In his memoir, he frankly states that “at times of internal differences, it will be hard for our officials to make decisions and for the foreign side to trust the negotiating team.”
Rowhani is certain that Iran cannot be ruled by a single faction. This conviction got him elected – not the sanctions.
Not everyone the new Iranian president will appoint or hire will completely agree. But if he is successful in building internal consensus, he will have the necessary base of power to confidently enter negotiations with external counterparts.
Rowhani’s power of persuasion should not be underestimated. It has been put to the test. He was a main force behind Iran’s agreement to temporarily and voluntarily suspend enrichment back in 2003. That effort to advance negotiations failed. And Rowhani has paid the price, facing criticism from the left and the right for years.
Now, ten years later, he might be able to finally reshape his legacy. He might once again be able to lobby for maneuvering that can break the nuclear deadlock. But unless his decision-shaping expertise is taken seriously—and his foreign counterparts give him a genuine reason to utilize it—we will probably never find out.
Mohammad Ali Shabani is a doctoral candidate focusing on Iran at SOAS, University of London. Mahsa Rouhi is a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working on Iranian affairs.