From the event
Luciano Zaccara
Mehran Kamrava head of the Iranian Studies Unit

The Iranian Studies Unit at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted Luciano Zaccara, Research Assistant Professor in Gulf Politics at Qatar University, for the launch of his latest book, Foreign Policy of Iran under President Hassan Rouhani’s First Term (2013-2017), on August 27, 2020. Zaccara is also Director of the Observatory on Politics and Elections in the Arab and Muslim World in Spain.

Zaccara’s edited volume, published by Palgrave Macmillan, deals comprehensively with the foreign policy of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani during the first term of his presidency. The book examines Rouhani’s foreign policy doctrine as well as Iran’s relations with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia. There are also chapters that analyze Iran’s regional approaches to Africa and Latin America.

The book was initiated as part of a project and grant from Qatar University to analyze Iranian foreign policy and its impact on the Gulf region. Zaccara began by discussing why his edited book focuses on Iran’s foreign policy during President Rouhani’s first term. The first four years of Rouhani’s presidency, Zaccara maintained, are illustrative of the ability of elected presidents in Iran to change aspects of foreign policy. Zaccara further explained that one of the central goals of the book is to examine President Rouhani’s legacy amid developments unfolding during his first term, such as the signing of the Nuclear Deal. Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989-1997), Zaccara contends, is remembered for reconstructing the Iranian economy and foreign policy; Mohammad Khatami’s (1997-2005) for initiating the Dialogue of Civilizations; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s (2005-2013) for his extreme Third Worldism and confrontational style with the West leading to the imposition of sanctions against Iran by the United Nations Security Council.

One of the key developments during Rouhani’s first term, Zaccara observed, was a telephone conversation taking place between Presidents Obama and Rouhani in New York after the United Nations General Assembly in November 2013; this marked the first direct communication between the United States and Iran in more than thirty years. The book argues that “this drastic change in Iranian-American relations was not only a change in the Iranian approach towards the United States but also a signal that it was no longer taboo for Iranians to directly engage with Americans in order to resolve the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.” This resulted in the signing of the nuclear deal, proclaimed by many as a real achievement in diplomacy. The book further argues that Rouhani’s extensive attention to foreign policy, especially to the nuclear negotiations, led to the negligence of economic and social matters. The pragmatism that Rouhani exhibited in his presidency was especially evident in relation to the nuclear issue. Zaccara added that Rouhani’s first term coincided with the election of US President Donald Trump, but his reelection was not affected since the US had not yet withdrawn from the nuclear deal by the time of the 2017 elections.

Despite the necessity of dialogue and cooperation in the region, Rouhani did not have a specific agenda or action plan to resolve thorny issues with Iran’s neighbors. He elaborated that “the defensive realism that Rouhani implemented prioritized security concerns and contradicted the continuation of offensive realism in regional affairs”. According to Zaccara, the contradictions inherent in the two schools of thought mainly hindered Rouhani’s engagement with the West.

Zaccara ended his talk by highlighting the book’s concluding chapter, titled “From Isolation to Accommodation,” and written by the renowned Iran expert Anoushiravan Ehteshami. Rouhani’s first term featured an era of prosperity and openness, at least during the first three years, as he steered the country away from President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy orientation: “Iranian presidents can make changes in foreign policy,” according to Zaccara, “despite the limitations of the political system and a constitution that gives the highest authority to the Supreme Leader.” The issue highlighted by Zaccara is that the openness that Iran experienced was overshadowed by lack of benefits achieved through the nuclear deal, insufficient internal changes at the social and economic levels, and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.