TEHRAN, Iran — It will not be an easy second term for recently re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. With the Middle East on fire as never before, the United States led by Donald Trump and Iran already at war in Iraq and Syria, flexibility is not in abundance for the new government in Tehran. Rather it might be that the moderate president and his foreign policy team are going to be gradually pushed in the direction of becoming hawks. The latest stances by Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on regional issues suggest that their rhetoric is already changing.
“The Iranian nation has decided to be powerful,” Rouhani told reporters in his first remarks after being re-elected. “Our missiles are for peace and for defense.” He added, “American officials should know that whenever we need to technically test a missile, we will do so and will not wait for their permission.”
One must ask, what is Tehran's foreign policy going to look like in Rouhani’s second term? Iran’s main framework for engagement with the international community remains the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, agreed to in July 2015. The nuclear deal is Rouhani’s first-term foreign policy asset, and in his second term, he will be looking to preserve the agreement and build on its positive elements.
“On the nuclear deal, he may have an easier job internally, as all his rivals stressed [during the election campaign] that they too would have safeguarded the deal,” Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, told Al-Monitor in Tehran.
Tabatabai added, “At the same time, it will require major diplomatic skills to on the one hand push back the hostile policies of the US while at the same time keep relations with Europe and the rest of the P5+1 [Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States plus Germany] intact.”
Tabatabai believes that Rouhani's election to a second term was not the desirable outcome for Iran’s regional rivals — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. He therefore thinks that the new government’s priority in this regard is going to be “countering their anti-Iran rhetoric with the right tone while finding a balance between deterrence and diplomatic outreach.”
There is a very small margin within which the government can maneuver between its positions on regional issues and those of the revolutionary establishment. Given the anti-Iran stances of the Saudis, Israelis and Americans, the Rouhani administration’s only choice might well be to wisely deal with their media assaults while providing bolder diplomatic support to Syria and Iraq, which Tehran views as countering terrorism.
Tehran University professor Mohammad Marandi said he thinks it is already clear that Iran’s policy on Syria will not be changing. He sees no serious internal differences on this issue, adding, “Maybe there were two or three years ago, but not now. There were more diverse voices, but I don’t believe that exists anymore as a given on Syria and Iraq.”
Marandi also said, “Regarding the United States, the biggest question remains who Trump is. We don’t know who Trump is, so it’s difficult to say. I don’t think that [Trump's] trip to Saudi Arabia was that important to Iran. I don’t think that Trump made any extraordinary commitments to the Saudis, but at the same time, I don’t think that Trump has the ability to achieve a rapprochement with Iran. The [US] deep state, the [US political] establishment is so hostile to Iran. He couldn’t do it with Russia, and I think Iran is hated more than Russia is, so when he’s being attacked day and night because of Russia, even if he wanted to do anything on Iran, he won’t be able to do it.”
Marandi said, “Rouhani’s biggest plus is that by being re-elected, no excuse is provided to the Americans, to the deep state, to move toward escalation. Even if someone else had been elected [in Iran], it wouldn’t have made any difference in Iranian foreign policy, but I think many in the US would have used it to increase tensions with Iran or increase sanctions. So Rouhani’s election perhaps took this argument away, although I’m sure nothing would have changed.”
A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told Al-Monitor, “Neighbors will continue to be Iran’s priority.” The official gave no further comments on what regional policy in Rouhani’s second term will look like or whether changes are forthcoming at the Foreign Ministry, namely whether Zarif will stay on. A change at the top has implications for how Iran’s foreign policy is implemented, the methods and tools for determining and laying out positions and how talks with adversaries are managed.
A political source in Tehran who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity said, “It’s not yet clear whether Zarif is going to continue being foreign minister. There are no indications [on this matter] at present, but if he wants to leave, then President Rouhani will have a hard time finding a replacement, as there are only a few, if any, who could match his capabilities and understanding of the country’s diplomatic needs at such a critical time.”
In an interview with the semi-official Iranian Students' News Agency in March, Zarif said that he prefers for another person to take over the position, but that if Rouhani asks him to stay on, he will assess what he might be able to accomplish before making a decision.