I met Hassan Rouhani at a stressful time — in 2003, just as the International Atomic Energy Agency was uncovering concealed nuclear activities in Iran. Rouhani was then President Mohammed Khatami’s insightful, pragmatic National Security Adviser; he was keen to seek a political solution through direct dialogue with the U.S. On his watch, Iran suspended sensitive nuclear activities as a gesture of goodwill until negotiations were completed. The Iranian media nicknamed him the Diplomat Sheik.
Regrettably, Rouhani’s moderate policies were undermined by U.S. hard-liners who were highly distrustful of Iran’s intentions; the U.S., not helped by Iran’s opaqueness and lack of transparency, declined to engage Iran directly or provide incentives. Rouhani and his President were unable to show tangible outcomes of their efforts; they lost the next elections to a hawkish team.
It took the West a decade to realize that bare-knuckle competition for regional influence was not a viable strategy for dealing with Iran. The recent interim agreement, facilitated by Rouhani’s low-key diplomacy, could have been reached 10 years ago. With mutual respect, confidence building and compromise, this step can be translated into a broad security and cooperation agreement, paving the way for a grand bargain with the West and a sea change in regional security and stability. Rouhani’s moderate leadership offers an opportunity that must not be missed: too much is at stake.
ElBaradei, an Egyptian politician and diplomat, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005