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Rouhani, the Nuclear Deal, and New Horizons for Iran–US Relations

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Foreign Policy of Iran under President Hassan Rouhani's First Term (2013–2017)

Part of the book series: Contemporary Gulf Studies ((CGS))


Rouhani’s election in 2013 was a pivotal point in the history of the Islamic Republic and allowed Iran to present a new image on the global stage, one significantly different from the preceding eight years. This chapter assesses the Rouhani Administration’s foreign policy approach by analysing the nuclear negotiations and the impact of the deal on Iran’s global engagement efforts. In addition, this chapter assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the nuclear deal by analysing its impact on the foreign and economic policies of Iran. The chapter concludes that the nuclear deal did not have a practical impact on the prospects of restoring official diplomatic relations with Washington, nor was it sustainably effective in revitalizing Iran’s economy. Thus, the continuation of US primary sanctions inhibited a reform in Iran’s strategic decision-making calculus towards the United States in particular, and foreign policy in general.

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  1. 1.

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got 61% and 63% of votes in his two elections in 2005 and 2009, with 53% and 83% turnout; Mohammad Khatami obtained 70% and 77% with the 80% and 67% turnout in his two terms, 1997 and 2001; Hashemi Rafsanjani got 95% and 62%, but with low turnout, 55% and 50% in 1989 and 1993; Ali Khamenei obtained 95% and 85% with 74% and 53% turnout in the 1981 and 1985 elections; Ali Rajai got 95% of votes in 1981, with 65% turnout; and finally Abol Hassan Bani Sadr obtained 75% of votes with 67% turnout in 1980.

  2. 2.

    Mohammad Javad Zarif, “What Iran Really Wants: Iranian Foreign Policy in the Rouhani Era,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014, p. 7.

  3. 3.

    Bijan Khajehpour, Reza Marashi, and Trita Parsi, “The Problem with Sanctions,” Cairo Review, October 2013,

  4. 4.

    Restrictions on trade in several goods: prohibition to export to Iran arms, dual-use goods and goods which could be used in enrichment-related activities; prohibition to import crude oil, natural gas, petrochemical and petroleum products; prohibition to sell or supply key equipment used in the energy sector, gold, other precious metals and diamonds, certain naval equipment, certain software, etc. Restrictions in the financial sector: freezing the assets of the Central Bank of Iran and major Iranian commercial banks, laying down notification and authorization mechanisms for transfers of funds above certain amounts to Iranian financial institutions. Measures in the transport sector: preventing access to EU airports of Iranian cargo flights, prohibition of maintenance and service of Iranian cargo aircraft or vessels carrying prohibited materials or goods. Travel restrictions and asset freeze imposed against other listed persons and entities “EU restrictive measures against Iran,” Council of the European Union,

    “Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions,” International Crisis Group, February 25, 2013, p. 12

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  9. 9.

    Michael Crowley, “Obama’s Iran Gamble,” Time, September 12, 2013,,9171,2158653,00.html.

  10. 10.

    Javad Zarif, as Iran’s former Representative to the United Nations, was involved with the nuclear negotiations since its start in 2002 and it can be inferred that President Rouhani was aware of these developments when he nominated Zarif as his foreign minister. John Kerry, as Senator and the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was involved in the decision-making process with President Obama and Secretary Clinton to hold the secret talks in Oman.

    Additionally, it was only reported after the interim deal was signed in Geneva that John Kerry’s absence in Washington in December 2011 and again in May 2013 were due to the fact that he travelled secretly to Muscat on the request of President Obama to test the waters of Oman’s mediating capacity with regards to Iran. Bryan Bender, “How John Kerry Opened A Secret Channel to Iran,” Boston Globe, November 26, 2013,

  11. 11.

    Ayatollah Rafsanjani mentions during a speech that the Supreme Leader was the primary architect of the new approach towards the nuclear issue before Rouhani’s election as he wanted to resolve the issue diplomatically,

  12. 12.

    In 2003, during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, and after a negotiation with the EU-3 group (United Kingdom, France, and Germany) Iran agrees to meet IAEA demands to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, ratify the additional protocols, and grant the IAEA broader rights of access to declared nuclear sites. Iran implemented the protocols unilaterally without the Majlis ratification as a good will gesture towards the international community. Once Ahmadinejad assumed office in August 2005, Iran reinitiated the uranium-enrichment activities and brought the agreement to a suspension.

  13. 13.

    Hassan Rouhani, “Time to Engage,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2013,

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    United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/68/L.31,” Adopted December 18, 2013,

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    Obama and Rouhani both decided on the manner in which they publicized the phone call by agreeing to state that while Rouhani was about to depart his hotel to leave New York, the White House called Iran’s UN ambassador and the two leaders spoke for 15 minutes. See details in Jeff Mason and Louis Charbonneau, “Obama, Iran’s Rouhani hold historic phone call,” Reuters, September 28, 2013,; The White House Office of the Press Secretary. Statement by the President. September 27, 2013,;متن کامل سخنان رییس جمهور در جمع خبرنگاران, October 2, 2013; and Rouhani on Twitter: “In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue.” This tweet replaced an earlier statement in which Rouhani claimed that the phone conversation also ended with Obama saying Khodahafez (Goodbye in Farsi),

  17. 17.

    The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Statement by the President on the Framework to Prevent Iran from Obtaining a Nuclear Weapon. April 2, 2015,

  18. 18.

    Supreme Leader’s Message to International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, April 17, 2010, Porter, Gareth, “When the Ayatollah Said No to Nukes,” Foreign Policy, October 16, 2014, President Obama also mentioned the Fatwa during his speech at UNGA in 2013,

  19. 19.

    Special Correspondent, “The Struggle for Iran’s Soul,” Foreign Policy, October 12, 2015,

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    Golnaz Esfandiari, “Back Pain Breaks Ice During Iran Nuclear Talks,” Radio Free Europe, October 17, 2013,

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    نظر رهبری درباره تیم مذاکره‌کننده‌ی هسته‌ای و منتقدین آنها, دیدار رهبری مسئولان و کارگزاران نظام, June 23, 2015, تیم مذاکره کننده ایران امین، غیور، شجاع و متدین هستند/ گله‌ای از دولت ندارم, ISNA News Agency, June 23, 2015,تیم-مذاکره-کننده-ایران-امین-غیور-شجاع-و-متدین-هستند-گله-ای .

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    See, for instance, Jochen Bittner, “Is Rouhani an Iranian Gorbachev?” New York Times, December 3, 2013; Natan Sharansky, “Is Rouhani the New Gorbachev?” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2013; and Stephen Kotkin, “Rouhani’s Gorbachev Moment. What Makes a Genuine Reformer?”, Foreign Affairs, November 24, 2013.

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  26. 26.

    Remarks by President Barack Obama at A Press Conference after Meeting with GCC Leaders, Camp David, United States, May 14, 2015,

  27. 27.


  28. 28.

    Babak Dehghanpisheh, and Sami Aboudi, “Iran president eyes better ties with Gulf Arabs during trip,” Reuters, February 15, 2017,

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  30. 30.

    The JCPOA was approved by Iran’s Majles famously in 20 minutes, after two months of intense debate in various fractions within the Majles as well as Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. President Obama also managed to secure the support of a Republican-majority US Congress without a single Republican voting in favour of the agreement. The US Senate did not arrive at the required 60 votes to block the implementation of the agreement.

    “Larijani Explains’s the JCPOA’s Approval Process in the Majles (توضیح لاریجانی درباره تصویب ۲۰ دقیقه‌‌ای برجام در مجلس)” Tasnim News, May 6, 2017,توضیح-لاریجانی-درباره-تصویب-20-دقیقه-ای-برجام-در-مجلس.

    Jennifer Steinhauer, “Democrats Hand Victory to Obama on Iran Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, September 10, 2015,

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    Gordon, Michael R. and Sanger, David E., “Deal Reached on Iran Nuclear Program; Limits on Fuel Would Lessen with Time,” The New York Times, July 14, 2015,

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  33. 33.

    Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Spokesman: US marines entry to Iranian territorial water was not hostile,” Press release, January 13, 2016,

    ‘تصمیم‌گیری درمورد تفنگداران آمریکایی بادستور سلسه مراتب خواهد بود’ (‘The decision about the US marines will be taken by the hierarchy’), Mehr News, January 13, 2016,تصمیم-گیری-درمورد-تفنگداران-آمریکایی-بادستور-سلسه-مراتب-خواهد.

  34. 34.

    “Deputy FM Cautions US to Remain Loyal to N. Deal,” Fars News, March 8, 2016,

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    Special Correspondent, “The Struggle for Iran’s Soul,” Foreign Policy, October 12, 2015.

  36. 36.

    Parisa Hafezi, “Obama, Iran’s Zarif shake hands in New York, Iranian official says,” Reuters, September 29, 2015,

  37. 37.

    Carol Morello, “Iran nuclear deal could collapse under Trump,” The Washington Post, November 9, 2016,

  38. 38.

    “Consumer Price Index,” Central Bank of Iran,; “Iran Inflation Rates,” Trading Economics,

  39. 39.

    “Iran GDP Annual Growth Rate” Trading Economics Online Database,

  40. 40.

    Luciano Zaccara, “Iran 2016: From the Saudi Embassy Attack to the Demise of Rafsanjani,” Asia Maior, vol. 27. (2016) p. 368 (357–378),

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    “Iran to Get First Purchased Airbus Aircraft Thursday,” Tasnim News, January 8, 2017,

  42. 42.

    تمام هتل‌های درجه‌ یک تهران تا پایان سال ۲۰۱۸ رزرو شد (All high-end hotels in Tehran are sold out until the end of 2018), Tasnim News Agency, March 8, 2017,تمام-هتل-های-درجه-یک-تهران-تا-پایان-سال-2018-رزرو-ش.

  43. 43.

    “PSA signs JV deal with Iran Khodro,” Press TV, June 21, 2016,

  44. 44.

    “Iran crude oil Production,” Trading Economic,; ‘OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report’, OPEC, December 14, 2016,

  45. 45.

    Rupert Rowling, Angelina Rascouet, and Julian Lee, “Shell Follows Total in Buying Iranian Crude After Sanctions End,” Bloomberg, June 8, 2016,

  46. 46.

    See the Iranian Banks’ SWIFT Code list,

  47. 47.

    “Foreign Exchange Rate,” Central Bank of Iran,

  48. 48.

    “Iran Unemployment Rates,” Trading Economics,

  49. 49.

    From May 2015 to April 2018, the proportion of Iranians who think the economic situation is bad increased from 44% to 72%. For the same periods, the Iranians who believe the economic situation is getting worse grew up from 37% to 64%. Moreover, in April 2018, 43% strongly agreed and 30% somewhat agreed with the statement “the government is not doing enough to help the poor”. On the other hand, the distrust on the United States notably increased, from 45% of Iranians that believed in 2015 that the United States would comply with the JCPOA dropped to just 11% three years later. Finally, the Iranians who considered the US presidential policies were “completely hostile” towards Iran increased from the 42% in December 2016 (Obama) to the 69% in January 2018 (Trump). “Iranian Attitudes Before & After Parliamentary Elections,” Center for International and Security Studies at University of Maryland (March 2016),

  50. 50.

    Nick Corasaniti, “Donald Trump Brings Theatrics to Iran Nuclear Deal Protest,” The New York Times, September 9, 2015,

  51. 51.

    Interviews conducted with ten Iranian scholars from Tehran University, Azad University, and Allameh Tabatabaei University in January 2017.

  52. 52.

    “Full transcript: Second 2016 presidential debate,” Politico, October 10, 2016,

  53. 53.


  54. 54.

    Nahal Toosi, and Louis Nelson, “Trump slaps new sanctions on Iran after missile test,” Politico, February 3, 2017,

  55. 55.

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  57. 57.


  58. 58.

    “Full transcript of Amanpour’s interview with Iran’s foreign minister,” CNN, February 17, 2017,

  59. 59.


  60. 60.

    “Iran GDP Annual Growth Rate” Trading Economics Online Database,

  61. 61.

    In January 2016, the Obama Administration changed the Visa Waiver Program for Europeans and some Asian nationals that had been to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria in the previous five years or if they possess dual citizenship that includes one of those four countries. This regulation was further reinforced in the beginning of the Trump Administration causing many to choose between going to Iran or the United States, aside from having serious repercussions on the daily lives of thousands of Iranian dual nationals.

    “Been on holiday to Iran? It will make US trips more expensive and stressful,” The Telegraph, January 22, 2016.

  62. 62.

    Kelsey Davenport, “Timeline of Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran,” Arms Control Association, Updated April 2019,

  63. 63.

    Torbati Yeganeh, “Trump election puts Iran nuclear deal on shaky ground,” Reuters, November 9, 2016,

  64. 64.

    “Rouhani vows to target all US sanctions if re-elected,” Al Jazeera, May 13, 2017,


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Correspondence to Luciano Zaccara .

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Zaccara, L., Haghirian, M. (2020). Rouhani, the Nuclear Deal, and New Horizons for Iran–US Relations. In: Zaccara, L. (eds) Foreign Policy of Iran under President Hassan Rouhani's First Term (2013–2017). Contemporary Gulf Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

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