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How Will Iran’s New President Impact Relations With U.S.?

June 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
What does the election of Hasan Rowhani mean for Iran's nuclear program? How will Iran's new president approach relations with the U.S.? To address those questions, Gwen Ifill is joined by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group.
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GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to tell us more about Hassan Rowhani and what his victory means for Iran and the United States are Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Cliff Kupchan, Middle East director at the Eurasia Group.

Cliff Kupchan, you have met him. What is he? Who is he? Tell us about him.

CLIFF KUPCHAN, Research Director, Eurasia Group: Well, he’s a very straightforward, thoughtful, earnest guy.

You ask a question, you get an answer. He’s kind of the anti-Ahmadinejad. You ask a question, you get a tirade. So, I think it’s a new leaf for Iran. I think we’re out of the ideology and we’re back into the realm of the real world. Now, how much power he has how far he can take Iran in the new world, it’s a different question.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I’m curious about this, Karim Sadjadpour, because he’s uniformly been described as a moderate, which means what by our standards?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Associate, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, it’s all relative.

If we were having this conversation 10 years ago, Rowhani would have been described as a conservative. But given the rightward shift of Iranian politics over the last decade, he was really the lone moderate choice that people had in this election.

And if you look at Iran over the last decade, this is a nation which has been suffocating under political pressure, economic mismanagement and tremendous external economic pressure. So, I think, for the Iranian people, this is the meteorological equivalent of a light rain after eight years of drought.

GWEN IFILL: But if you were to draw some sort of loop between Ahmadinejad on one side and Khatami on the other, is he in the middle somewhere?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: He is in the middle somewhere. But I think …

GWEN IFILL: He’s not a reformer?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: No. And that’s what’s very important for everyone to understand. He is not a reformer.

He is a child of the system. He served as the secretary of the national security council for 16 years. He sits on Iran’s highest adjudicating bodies. He’s very, very close to the supreme leader. So, he’s a cautious man of the system who may pursue reform, but is not going to turn his back on the system.

And that is why I think, in my view, Supreme Leader Khamenei let him become president, because ultimately Khamenei does not view him as a threat to the system.

GWEN IFILL: If the supreme leader is the guy who gets the final say, how much power does Rowhani really have?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, Iranian presidents have influence domestically, I would argue, more than they do internationally, in changing the strategic principles of the Islamic republic.

So, just like in Washington, when there is a new president, you bring in a whole new team, a group of folks to staff the bureaucracies, and Rowhani will be able to bring more kind of professional managers and technocrats into the system, those types of moderate forces that have been purged over the last decade.

But when it comes to, I would argue, the ideological principles of the Islamic regime and the Iranian revolution, resistance against America, rejection of Israel’s existence, support for groups like Hezbollah, for the Assad regime in Syria, I would argue that Rowhani’s influence is going to be more tactical than strategic.

He’s not going to be able to change those principles, but he can do it so — he can conduct diplomacy with a smiling moderate face, as opposed to Ahmadinejad.

GWEN IFILL: What about nuclear weapons? We have been watching Iran’s nuclear capability grow. That’s what obviously Israel is worried about. It’s what almost everybody is worried about, tangentially or directly.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, look, I agree with my friend Karim that we’re unlikely to see change on Syria.

But I think the nuclear arena is different. This is where, in the debates, Gwen, he effectively linked Iran’s nuclear position with sanctions with the suffering of every Iranian citizen. And it worked. So, in some ways, this election was a mandate for Hassan Rowhani to pursue a different nuclear policy.

I think that he will pursue a more reasonable position. I think he will bring in skilled diplomats and the atmospherics will change.

It doesn’t mean we’re going to get a deal, but it means I think we have got better chance today than we did last Friday.

GWEN IFILL: When you say we, does that mean the U.S. finally has someone to deal with, to talk to who is not going to come to well of the U.N. and declare that U.S. smells of sulfur, or whatever that was?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, first, I agree with the perspective that this, for the Obama administration, was the best possible outcome or the least bad outcome of a very flawed electoral process.

And I think if you talk to someone like Secretary of State John Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, even Obama himself, if they could push a button and normalize relations with Iran, they would love to, because Iran has significant influence over a lot of U.S. foreign policy challenges.

But I would argue this time around, as opposed to Obama’s first term, they’re — they’re — what they’re hoping for is less a rapprochement, which they probably see as unrealistic, and more detente.

But I would argue that the person who is perhaps most concerned with Hasan Rowhani’s victory is Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, because I think what he sees is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Iran is going to continue to pursue, he believes, the same hard-line nuclear policies, but do so with a moderate base, which is going to make it more difficult to coerce and pressure Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what he should be worried about, Cliff Kupchan?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think Israelis get the reception. I think they know that at the end of the day that Iran will have some domestic ability to enriched uranium, that the world is, whether they recognize Iran’s right to enrich, they will recognize that Iran is enriching.

And what Netanyahu is up to keep the pressure on to get the best deal, to get the most inspections, to get the longest lead time, if they do try to create a weapon, so that something can be done about it. So, I think he’s worried. I think he will keep the pressure up.

But if we can get a good, verifiable, intrusive deal — and I have been to Israel six times in the last two years, and that’s what they tell you. They would support that. They will go along with that.

GWEN IFILL: So, these conversations, these talks that were under way and then were frozen waiting on the outcome of this election, do you expect them to start again?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think they will start again.

Rowhani will be inaugurated in August. And if you look at his previous team of nuclear advisers, they were all U.S.-educated. They came from merchant backgrounds. They were not ideologues. So, I think he has a mandate, at least from the Iranian public, to pursue a process of confidence-building.

You have a government in Washington that is interested in confidence-building. This is the first time that these stars have aligned since the year 2000. But I think our expectations should be tempered.

GWEN IFILL: Final brief question for both of you.

In your opinion — I will start with you, Karim — was this a free and fair election? We saw the turnout.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It wasn’t free, in that only a limited pool of candidates were allowed to run.

But, as opposed to the 2009 election, when people believed the votes weren’t counted, this time, it looked, to the surprise of many of us, that the integrity of the ballot box was respected.

GWEN IFILL: Cliff?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: It wasn’t free in the same way that Karim said.

But, but compare Iran to its neighbors, where there aren’t any elections. There is still, I would point out, this remarkable, enduring democratic streak in Iran. And the Iranians really do care about the vote. It’s a remarkable country. I think it was free and fair enough for me to admire what happened.

GWEN IFILL: Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie — Carnegie Endowment, thank you both so much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Gwen.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Thanks, Gwen.