Just when the world had given up hope for meaningful change in Iran, the country's presidential election produced a surprise. Rather than a repeat of the 2009 conservative victory, the token reformist candidate, Hasan Rowhani, whose campaign called for moderation at home and constructive relations with the world, defied the odds to win a clear majority in the first round of voting. This is a welcome repudiation of the Ahmadinejad years and a clear popular challenge to the conservative chokehold on Iranian politics. The world can take heart in the fact that majority of Iranians voted for a break with the Ahmadinejad legacy and that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards chose not to reverse the election's outcome in a repeat of the debacle of 2009.
This is all good news for Iranian politics, but what matters most to the West these days is the fate of the country's nuclear program. There is cautious optimism that popular support for moderation at the polls will translate into concessions at the negotiating table. Rowhani sent clear signals during the presidential campaign that if elected he would seek to end Iran's international isolation. Favoring engagement over resistance, he said, "We have no other option than moderation." That may well be the case, but a nuclear deal is still far from certain, and in fact this June surprise could confound U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran.
For starters, Rowhani may have won the popular mandate, but it is Khamenei who will make the final decision on the nuclear program. Iran's counterparts in the P5+1 -- the diplomatic bloc composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany -- would welcome seeing the back of the hardline negotiator Saeed Jalili. But even if Rowhani managed to persuade the supreme leader to sack his protégé and favorite in the recent elections, Iran's position on its right to have a nuclear program is unlikely to change.
In fact, President Rowhani will be particularly aware of the risks inherent in negotiating with the P5+1. Rowhani was widely excoriated in Iran for ostensibly betraying the national interest in 2003, when, as the country's nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That concession was meant as a confidence-building measure to build momentum for a broader nuclear deal, but the reformist hope turned into defeat when talks failed amid allegations that Iran had violated protocols laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The supreme leader and his conservative coterie concluded that the suspension had been construed as Iranian weakness and only invited greater international pressure. They blamed Rowhani for having put Iran on its heels. The defeatist image became a stain on the reformists' reputation and contributed to the conservative juggernaut that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005.
Ahmadinejad lost no time reversing the suspension. In a matter of days, the West offered Iran a new diplomatic package that reportedly included trade incentives, the promise of long-term access to nuclear supplies, and assurances of non-aggression. Rowhani's boss, the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, complained that in doing so the West had rewarded Ahmadinejad's brazen defiance over the reformists' gesture of compromise.
Once bitten twice shy, Rowhani is unlikely to yet again risk being branded as soft on the West. He will venture concessions only if he is assured of tangible returns. This time it has to be Rowhani who gets more out of the United States than Ahmadinejad and Jalili did -- and they had been offered spare aircraft parts and, in the last round of talks, relief from international sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals. Rowhani will be looking for real sanctions relief and a promise of recognition of Iran's right to enrichment.
The dilemma for Washington is that, as a reformist, Rowhani is an outsider, weaker than Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran's suspicious conservative establishment. Rowhani's electoral mandate gives him room to maneuver, but that is not enough to shield him from the backlash that would follow any rebuff at the negotiating table. So he will likely wait for a signal of American willingness to make serious concessions before he risks compromise.
For the past eight years, U.S. policy has relied on pressure -- threats of war and international economic sanctions -- rather than incentives to change Iran's calculus. Continuing with that approach will be counterproductive. It will not provide Rowhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks, and it could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue.