August 8, 2013
Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as Iran’s new president days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed back-breaking sanctions against the country. By many accounts, the House bill was the wrong message to the Iranian government at the wrong time. More important, this was a blow to 18 million Iranians who, despite all odds, chose the path of electoral politics and voted for the candidate who promised to normalize relations with the United States.
The Iranian electorate embraced political moderation and a peaceful change of power at a time when many Muslim countries are engulfed in civil war, coup d’état and street violence. They chose the ballot box to speak with their government and with the United States. The hardening of sanctions against the regime can only weaken the voters’ enthusiasm for the political process, and their interest in dialogue with the United States. Given the rising violence and radicalism in the region, this will be an unwelcome outcome for all.
Iranians chose limited and gradual development over the chaos and escalating violence often associated with abrupt political change. Violence begets violence. Iranian voters demonstrated political maturity and aversion to violence. Their choice should have been rewarded with gestures of reconciliation.
Only days after the Iranian election, street protests erupted in Egypt. On July 3, the army overthrew Egypt’s first and only elected government. Many have died and more injured in the clashes that followed.
The removal of Mohammed Morsi by force delegitimized the young and fragile political process in Egypt. Street confrontations replaced the long and tedious path to democratic change.
Egypt remains more divided and prone to violence than anytime after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. For the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any elected government will have the needed legitimacy to steer Egypt toward stable democracy.
Iranians watched Egypt with a sense of relief that they were spared a similar outcome. Unlike many countries in the Muslim world, Iran experienced a peaceful election and a change in administration. As the Egyptians battled with each other and with the army on the streets of Cairo and other big cities, Iranians awaited the day the president-elect would be sworn in.
Rouhani’s past record in negotiating with the West gave a renewed sense of optimism to the largely young, modern and peaceful electorate. The U.S. House vote was a blow to this optimism.
All is not lost however. There is still a chance for a constructive response to the Iranian voters’ optimism. The ball is now in the Senate’s court. The Senate can still hold off voting on the bill as a goodwill gesture not only to the new Iranian government, but also to the Iranian electorate.
A real opportunity exists for resolving the conflict between the United States and Iran. This can potentially produce immeasurable benefits. A resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran is the most immediate benefit of the constructive response to the Iranian voters’ choice.
The normalization of relations between Iran and the United States and the eventual lifting of sanctions were among the primary goals of the voters in this election. Delivering on that will embolden the democratic and moderate Iranians. It will be a boost to pro-democracy forces in Iran and the region.
Rewarding the Iranian voters for their participation in the political process will lead to much deeper and longer-term gains in the Muslim world. It will make patient and purposeful participation in the political process a winning alternative to the chaos and the violence of the Arab streets. This opportunity is too valuable to be missed by hawkish and blind politics.