There are several reasons for cautious optimism about Rouhani’s election. First, he is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outgoing president. Instead of railing against the United States and threatening neighboring countries, Rouhani campaigned on a platform to improve relations with the West. He pledged to “pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace” and “constructive interaction with the world.” He even criticized the “extremism” of Ahmadinejad’s government and pledged to work toward the release of political prisoners, including the leaders of the opposition Green Movement. A former nuclear negotiator, Rouhani previously agreed to suspend enrichment activities and implement additional nuclear safeguards urged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things,” he said during the campaign, referring to the United States. “We believe that that the nuclear issue will be solved only through talks, not sanctions and threats.”
Rouhani’s election provides a welcome opportunity to recalibrate U.S. policy toward Iran. A growing chorus of bipartisan U.S. national security officials, including former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, believes the United States must balance its current sanctions with greater diplomatic engagement. It would be a mistake to impose new sanctions on Iran before giving Rouhani the chance to put his words into action. Additional sanctions now would offend the majority of voters who chose moderation over extremism and could jeopardize a crucial opening for moderate Iranian leaders.