The election of Hassan Rouhani in this month’s Presidential Election has been hailed as a victory for Iran’s reformists over the conservative ‘principalists’ close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his first press conference after the election, Dr Rouhani vowed that Iran would adopt a more constructive dialogue with the international community. This Bow Briefing report argues that now is the time for the West to make a renewed diplomatic effort to reach an agreement with Tehran with regards to its nuclear programme.
This is a guarded recommendation. While Dr Rouhani has pledged to better Iran’s relations with the international community, he has also stated his intention to continue the uranium enrichment process, a key obstacle to reengaging with the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Furthermore, it is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the ultimate authority to decide on the direction taken by Iran’s nuclear programme. This report’s recommendation of a renewed attempt to engage with Iran diplomatically does not result from unfounded optimism. Rather, it is consideration of the potentially catastrophic consequences of failing to find a negotiated settlement that drives its support for taking advantage of any opportunity to reengage diplomatically.
The report assesses the potential consequences of failing to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear programme. It considers (a) the potential consequences of a military attack upon Iran’s nuclear programme and (b) what allowing it to progress outside the confines of an international agreement might mean for the Middle East.
If Israel or the United States launch military strikes upon Iran’s nuclear programme then the potential for escalation would be huge. Iran might retaliate against US military assets in the Persian Gulf or seek to blockade the Strait of Hormuz. Conversely, if Iran’s nuclear programme continues in its current vein then Tehran’s influence over both state and non-state actors in the region will increase. Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, will continue to guard against this by further expanding their military capabilities, as well as by making renewed efforts to exert their own influence through political and militant groups in places such as Syria and Lebanon.
The overall conclusion drawn by this report is that should negotiations fail to bring an end to the fears surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, then the security situation in the Middle East is likely to undergo significant upheaval in the near future. On this basis, the report recommends that while remaining alert to the reality of the situation, the West should take advantage of Dr Rouhani’s election and make every effort to reengage Iran diplomatically.