Saved by the Deal

How Rouhani Won the Negotiations and Rescued His Regime

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani laughs as he speaks during an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society in New York, September 26, 2013. (Keith Bedford / Courtesy Reuters)

Although it was greeted with heated debate in the United States, the announcement of a landmark deal on Iran’s nuclear program was met with wide approval in Iran. Cheering crowds decked in purple and green, the colors associated with the country’s embattled movements for moderation and reform, met Iran’s nuclear negotiators at the airport. Newspapers printed special editions with jubilant headlines. And even the stern Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, released an official statement with unusual dispatch to welcome the news and laud the diplomats who hammered out the deal.

One might think that the crowds and officials were rejoicing at the relatively meager sanctions relief meted out by a justifiably mistrustful West. Or perhaps that they were celebrating the fact that the deal left open the question of whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium. In fact, their concerns were far broader: thanks to the deal, regime moderates have started to rebalance a government that seemed on the verge of toppling only a few years ago. And, in so doing, they have confounded the world’s expectations. Despite facing the most severe sanctions in history, increasing global isolation, and a recent history significant domestic unrest, Iran’s revolutionary theocracy has once again navigated its way off of history’s exit ramp. Where the country heads next, of course, remains as uncertain as ever.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered on his promise to end the nuclear impasse -- and in record time, only 100 days into his presidency. His authority is now more secure than that of any of his predecessors. He leads a national unity government that boasts broad support among the country’s perennially warring political establishment, the explicit backing of the supreme leader, and, now, the ecstatic support of the public as well.

The last 100 days have certainly been eventful. But the real story of Iran’s transformation began in 2009, with the epic turmoil that followed the contested re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. The unrest left deep rifts among the insiders who had governed the Islamic Republic for the previous three decades. With an array of senior political figures in prison, and what was left of the legitimacy of Iran’s elections in tatters, the regime’s political base had become precariously narrow.

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