In supporting the argument for Rouhani's moderation, much is made of his role in Iran's decision to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in 2004. But it
is worth remembering that this decision was not only a diplomatic feint to head off sanctions and continue importing nuclear technology as Ramezanzadeh
suggests. It was also inspired by a genuine fear that the "mad-bomber Bush" would target Tehran after quickly disposing of Saddam and the Iraqi military in
To be sure, during the election campaign, Rouhani projected moderation relative to his competitors. He ran on a "policy of reconciliation and peace," and
criticized nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for reckless diplomacy that united the U.S., Europe, and the
international community in support of unprecedented global sanctions to punish Iran for its uncompromising nuclear stance.
In the face of increasingly crippling sanctions, Iranians appeared to embrace the "anyone-but-Jalili" vote, if only to counter the candidate who appeared
to be Khamenei's first choice. Rouhani, after all, promised that his moderate positions could bring the West around to authorize sanctions relief before
the Iranian economy collapses.
Rouhani, however, is only the most moderate of the eight hardline candidates who were hand-selected by Khamenei. And even if he truly were committed to
nuclear reconciliation, Rouhani, like Ahmadinejad, lacks the power to alter Iran's nuclear trajectory. As Rouhani acknowledged during the campaign,
Khamenei remains in charge of Iran's nuclear policy.
Rouhani's victory may be a temporary political setback for Khamenei, who might have preferred a more politically pliant president like Jalili who would
help preserve the interfactional power balance between the supreme leader, the clerics, the Revolutionary Guards, and the bazaaris (middle-class
But on the question of Iran's nuclear policy, the election might be a godsend for the supreme leader, who can now offer up a more soft-spoken,
cosmopolitan, and diplomatic president to convince the West to ease sanctions, even while Khamenei is unprepared to relinquish his nuclear program.
Accordingly, Khamenei will likely allow Rouhani to engage with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) in another round
of nuclear negotiations. If Rouhani starts sounding too conciliatory, Khamenei will blame his new president for selling out Iran's interests. But he also
could allow Rouhani to rope-a-dope the P5+1 by offering a deal to minimize Iran's stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.
Such an offer, if presented by Rouhani as a step toward "reconciliation and peace," may be enough to tie up the West for sufficient time to undermine
international support for sanctions, get Iranian oil flowing again, stabilize the economy, and even help Rouhani deliver on his election promises. But an
offer that only limits Iran's 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile, without other more rigorous nuclear safeguards, would not be sufficient to arrest
Iran's nuclear weapons development.