4 reasons Rouhani is winning Iran’s foreign policy debate

Al Monitor | Hassan Ahmadian: Foreign policy has traditionally come second to domestic issues in Iranian presidential elections. Yet ever since the 2013 presidential election, foreign policy debates have come to the fore. Four years ago, Hassan Rouhani ran for president with a symbolic key to open the doors to resolve Iran’s mainly economic challenges.

During the 2013 election, Rouhani argued that many difficulties were rooted in the country’s foreign policy, declaring that it’s time for foreign policy to serve Iran’s economy. He also said in yet another highly symbolic sentence that the spinning of uranium enrichment centrifuges is valuable once the economy’s wheels also spin. Therefore, his foreign policy agenda focused on resolving both the nuclear issue and easing tensions with Iran’s Arab neighbors. Nonetheless, resolving the nuclear issue through engagement with six world powers came first, paying off with the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA was a result of both parties lowering their maximalist goals. For instance, Iran shipped out most of its low-enriched uranium, halted enrichment at its Fordow facility and accepted a robust verification mechanism. In return, Iran’s nuclear file was brought out of the UN Security Council, nuclear-related sanctions were lifted and Iran was allowed to rejoin the global economy — all, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has repeatedly stated, within a discursive framework in which the JCPOA was portrayed as a “win-win.”

Rouhani’s critics, however, saw it as surrendering Iran’s inalienable rights. In their view, the six world powers did not accept any serious commitments in return for major sacrifices on the part of Iran. This point is expected to come up during the campaigning and especially the upcoming presidential debate on foreign policy, which will be broadcast live on Iranian state television May 12.

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