Iran’s newly-elected president is no reformist, say analysts, while human rights advocates recall that he welcomed a fatal crackdown on student protests by the hardline Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards in 1999.
“As Iranians responded to the victory of the cleric Hassan Rohani in the country’s presidential race over the weekend by erupting into street parties not seen in many years, it almost seemed as if some sort of reformist revolution could be under way,” Thomas Erdbrink writes in The New York Times:
But Mr. Rohani, 64, is no renegade reformist, voted in while Iran’s leaders were not paying attention. Instead, his political life has been spent at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment….. Even his nickname — “the diplomat sheik” — is testament to his role as a pragmatist seeking conciliation for the Islamic leadership. Whether in dealing with protesting students, the aftermath of devastating earthquakes or, in his stint as nuclear negotiator, working to ease international pressure as Iran moved forward with its nuclear program, Mr. Rohani has worked to find practical ways to help advance the leadership’s goals.
Rohani comes from a wing of the clerical establishment that finds Islam to be a more dynamic than rigid code. The thesis he wrote to obtain his doctorate in constitutional law in 1997 from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, according to his personal Web site, was on “the flexibility of Shariah; Islamic law.” ….He is currently the head of the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran, which advises both Mr. Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei.
“His lifelong career shows he has been at the heart of Iranian politics and his goal is to serve the Islamic republic of Iran,” said Ali Shakouri-Rad, a reformist politician. “The very fact he is elected shows that he is very much accepted by our establishment.”
Other expert observers suggest that Western observers should curb their enthusiasm over Rohani’s victory.
“There is a lot to be cautious about. Rohani is part of the system. He has served in some of the highest positions in Iran, including within the military and national security establishment,” said Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank. “He is not a reformist. He appears as an alternative candidate when compared to people like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is a low bar.”
Iran’s newly elected president used his first news conference since Friday’s poll to pledge to follow a “path of moderation” and promise greater openness over the country’s nuclear program. But he would not support halting Iran’s uranium enrichment, reports suggest:
He also sidestepped the issue of Iran’s close alliance with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, saying that the efforts to end the civil war and restore stability rest with the “Syrian people”. Iran’s president does not have authority to set major policies such as the direction of the nuclear program or relations with the west. All such decisions rest with the ruling clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which have so far appeared to embrace Mr Rohani.
The news conference ended suddenly “when a man in the audience sprang up and shouted a slogan in favor of reformist leader Mirhossein Mousavi, held under house arrest since 2011,” Reuters reports:
“Rohani remember, Mirhossein must be (present),” the man shouted live on state television as security guards bundled him away.
‘Bleak picture’ for hardliners
“On the surface Mr Rohani, a moderate pragmatist, eked out a slight first round victory by forming an implicit coalition with reformists, liberals, women and youth to defeat the four ‘fundamentalist’ candidates,” notes one observer. “But a closer look at the results shows a far bleaker picture for Ayatollah Khamenei, the hardliners and other conservative groups long dominant within Iran’s constrained political system,” writes analyst Borzou Daragahi:
The candidate personally closest to the supreme leader, his longtime foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, received just 6 per cent of the vote. But almost more startling was the performance of Ayatollah Khamenei’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Upheld as the ideal common man by the religious militias and zealots who make up the core of the regime’s support and in many ways the ideological doppelgänger of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, he received little more than one in 10 votes.
In 2003, Rohani was a member of the National Security Council when 127 Iranian parliamentarians signed an open letter to Khamenei urging him to freeze enrichment of uranium to ward off the threat of war after President George Bush had labeled Iran part of an “axis of evil,” the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon and Farnaz Fassihi report:
Mr. Khamenei didn’t answer the letter, and conservative media began slamming the signatories. In the background, Mr. Rohani began lobbying with Mr. Khamenei and a circle of his advisers. Eventually, he persuaded Mr. Khamenei to sign off on a document called the Tehran Declaration, where Iran agreed to cooperate with IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, and freeze enrichment for the duration of the negotiations.
“Rohani took the middle ground,” said Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini one of the reformist parliamentarians who had signed the original letter, “and managed to execute our demand. He didn’t do it our way, he went about it very quietly and politically,” adding that Rohani benefits from strong connections with both conservatives and reformists.
Rohani appeared on Iranian state television to describe his win as “a victory of wisdom, moderation, progress, awareness, commitment and religiosity over extremism and bad behavior,” in sentiments echoed by some observers.
“His victory is a challenge to the status quo. Lots of Iranians, not necessarily those opposed to the current regime, were fed up with the country’s trajectory and wanted a change,” said Yasmin Alem, author of “Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System.”
“People who had been disillusioned saw a glimmer of hope and that translated into support for Rohani,” she said.
Rohani’s win suggests a “shift of historic significance in Iran,” wrote Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “Rohani is an ideal candidate to spearhead a new initiative to wrest Iran from its debilitating battle with the international community over the nuclear issue.”
Yet a Saban Center colleague takes a more cautious line.
The surprise election “represents a triumphant resurrection of the reformist movement” that the regime suppressed following the Green upsurge of 2009, writes Martin Indyk.
“But the Supreme Leader remains very much in command. Indeed, this election may have solidified his reign,” he notes, since “his radical regime now has a moderate, democratically elected president to cloak his own extremism and paranoia.”
Iran’s regime is a “theocracy that resorts to elections to legitimize itself,” writes FT analyst Rhoula Khalaf, who suggests that as a reason why the Supreme Leader may welcome the result.
“It has become a habit for the people of Iran to get in the way of the regime’s election planning,” she writes. “The protest vote against fundamentalist candidates was so strong that Khamenei might have finally recognized that the depth of disillusionment with hardline policies posed a greater risk to his regime that a Rohani presidency.”
“The excitement about possibilities with a new team running the country is understandable,” according to a leading Iranian human rights advocate.
“However, the new president’s demand of non-intervention in Iran’s affairs is a cause of concern that should be addressed sooner rather than later,” says Roya Boroumand (right), the co-founder and director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit focused on promoting human rights and democracy in Iran.*
The supposedly moderate cleric expressed gratitude to the hardline Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards after they crushed reformist protests in 1999 in a violent attack in which they “broke down doors, shattered windows, set fire to students’ beds and personal belongings and even threw some of them out of windows.” Rohani criticized the students as “hooligans” after at least one person was killed and many others injured in the assault, while at least three other people were killed and more than 200 injured in subsequent protests.
“If the international community gives the Islamic Republic’s unchanged leadership the comforting thought that by focusing on the nuclear issue, they will have a free hand on their conduct inside Iran, there will be more imprisonment, torture, and executions,” Boroumand fears.
Rowhani’s victory demonstrates the resilience and elasticity of Iran’s regime, says a prominent foreign policy analyst.
“Iran’s revolutionary system has proven so durable (already lasting almost half as long as communism did in the Soviet Union) in part because its political system is intelligently designed,” writes Walter Russell Mead:
Elected politicians compete for office and take responsibility for a lot of what governments do: economic policy, schools, fixing potholes and so on. They also dispose of a lot of patronage and give a lot of government business to those they wish to reward. That makes Iranian politics more interesting to voters than the typical immobility of autocratic states. The Supreme Leader keeps ultimate power in his hands, but if the city government hasn’t fixed the road in front of your house, you don’t blame him.
“In other words, Iran has a ‘deep state’ where the real power lies and a ‘shallow state’ where politics happens,” Mead notes on The American Interest’s Via Meadia blog:
This is a form of government that has a long history in the region, and to some degree it is what we see today in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan. (Until recently we saw it in Turkey as well.) It offers a more flexible and perhaps more durable political system than a pure dictatorship, but at the cost of allowing more public input into relatively trivial issues it solidifies the hold of the real rulers on the issues that count.
“Iran’s presidential election presents a paradox,” notes a leading Iran analyst. “The vote was free enough for Hassan Rohani to score a shocking win and for the favored conservative candidate to finish a dismal third. And yet it was blatantly unfair because hundreds of reformist and pragmatic candidates were blocked from running.”
“Iranians live under an autocratic, repressive and economically stagnating system. Anything that eases those conditions is an unalloyed good,” writes Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Institute, a London-based think-tank:
More important, the events of the past several years underscore that evolutionary political change is far preferable, both to its participants and bystanders, to the revolutionary violence witnessed in places like Syria. Rohani’s regime credentials may allow him to serve as a bridge figure, capable of couching modest reforms terms that are politically acceptable to the hardliners.
Another way to judge his intentions and influence will be in his handling of former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, leaders of the Green Movement that was crushed in 2009, who have been under house arrest for two years. Their detention is a reminder of the cruel realities of the Islamic Republic, where bloggers and journalists are routinely jailed, freedom of information and association are tightly curtailed and minorities are frequently treated as second-class citizens. If Rohani frees Karroubi and Mousavi, whose supporters were ecstatic at Friday’s election result, it would be very encouraging.
“It is understandable that we, on the outside, treat geopolitical issues as the litmus tests of Iran’s trajectory,” says Joshi. “But if Rohani can start renewing and protecting cultural, social and political freedoms, the longer-term effects may be just as consequential for the rest of the world.”
“Rohani is, as we say in Persian, more bazaari than resistance, meaning he’s more a dealmaker than a rigid ideologue,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian American analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s true that Iran’s existing foreign policy principles are pretty entrenched, but he may be able to impact them, at a minimum tactically.”
For President Obama and his national security team, Rohani represents “the best hope for detente with Iran,” Sadjadpour said.
But embracing Rohani too warmly could “heighten the paranoia of the supreme leader and make it impossible for Rohani to push for concessions in the nuclear negotiations… that would brand him as suspect in Khamenei’s eyes,” writes the Saban Center’s Indyk.
The “ultra-powerful” Revolutionary Guard is promising to offer “any cooperation” with Rohani, analysts note:
The reason for the embrace is that the opposition’s accidental hero Rohani also may become a lucky charm for the ruling system: Helping restore its legitimacy at home and tamping down calls for military action against its nuclear program from Israel and others.
Rohani appears to have been an unexpected beneficiary of pent-up resentments after years of repression and economic hardships brought on by Western sanctions, said Ray Takeyh, a former State Department adviser and Middle East expert.
“This was supposed to be a well-regulated, well-crafted election, and then the wheels came off,” he said. “It appears that the leadership miscalculated on Rohani’s appeal and also miscalculated on the ineptness of its preferred candidates and the impact of the divisions among the conservative coalition.”
Rohani is committed to the country’s nuclear program, said Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “but he also sees the importance of Iran’s economy and the need for more serious negotiations.”
“However, this is no longer 2003 [the last time he dealt with this issue]. He is taking over the presidency at a time when the program is more mature and sophisticated,” said Takeyh. “As such, it is impossible for him to deal with some of the hard edges of the program: greater cooperation with the IAEA and perhaps curtailing production of 20 percent fuel. But beyond that, it will be tough going.”
“With a moderate in as president instead of Ahmadinejad, Israel has to change its tone,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. “The sell-by date of repeating the same line of ‘all options remain on the table’ has expired.”
Rowhani’s victory is not regime change “but it is a game-changer,” says Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat:
The supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards continue to control all the levers of power. However, the election result has altered the face of Iran, enough to put to question the continued viability of American policy. There is now both the opportunity and the expectation that Washington will adopt a new approach to strengthen reformists and give Rohani the opening that he needs if he is to successfully argue the case for a deal with the P5+1.
“The dilemma for Washington is that, as a reformist, Rohani is an outsider, weaker than Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran’s suspicious conservative establishment,” Nasr writes for Foreign Policy. “Rowhani’s electoral mandate gives him room to maneuver, but that is not enough to shield him from the backlash that would follow any rebuff at the negotiating table. “
Rowhani’s victory “tells me that there was a hidden but huge reservoir of reformist energy in Iran that broke loose in a true political wave,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group. “It was unpredictable — not even tip of the iceberg visible two days or three days ago — but it seems to have happened.”
Farideh Farhi, an Iranian scholar at the University of Hawaii….said it was clear that reformists and other disaffected voters in Iran had summoned energy to mobilize for a heavy turnout despite their own doubts about the system.
“Everyone’s assumption was they would not be able to create a wave of voters in the society,” Farhi told The New York Times. “This outcome was not something planned by Ayatollah Khamenei.”
In retrospect, it is clear that there were a number of factors in Rohani’s favor, the Saban Center’s Maloney writes for Foreign Affairs:
First, his campaign was sharper than many gave it credit for. He pushed against the regime’s red lines, for example, by promising to release political prisoners. And, in a clear reference to Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two reformist candidates who were detained after the 2009 vote, he said that he would free all those who remain under house arrest as well. ….
Rohani also benefitted from an unprecedented alliance between Iran’s embattled reform movement and the center-right faction to which Rouhani, as well as Rafsanjani, are generally understood to belong. …. By joining with the center-right now, the reformists got a path out of the political desert in which they have languished since the end of Khatami’s presidency. By joining with the reformists, Rohani got a powerful get-out-the-vote effort and the withdrawal from the race of Mohammad Reza Aref, the sole approved reformist candidate. By contrast, the conservative camp remained divided, never coalescing around a single candidate.
“But if the election was a victory for reform and middle class voters, it also served the conservative goals of the supreme leader, restoring at least a patina of legitimacy to the theocratic state, providing a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation, and returning a cleric to the presidency,” The New York Times’ Erbrink writes from Tehran
For all his reformist credentials, Mr. Rohani backs the nuclear program, which Iran contends is for peaceful uses but which the West believes is aimed at producing atomic weapons. In a 2004 speech, not made public until years later, he boasted that even when Iran had suspended uranium enrichment, it was able to make its greatest nuclear advances because the pressure was off.
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan,” a crucial Iranian nuclear facility.
Rohani’s election will not necessarily assuage the concerns of James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under Mr. Obama, and other signatories of a recent op-ed article in The Washington Post arguing that “a sense of crisis is warranted” in the light of Iran using the first half of the year to develop two alternative paths to building a nuclear bomb.
“Although Rohani argues for constructive interactions with other countries and although he supports applying a softer political tone, Rohani has not called for an overall sweeping shift in Iran’s foreign policy,” writes Middle East scholar Majid Rafizadeh. “For instance, Rohani has neither asked Assad to step down from power nor pressed to halt the Islamic Republic of Iran’s military, intelligence, financial, and advisory support to Damascus.”
A recent speech by the Supreme Leader suggests that with the economy badly damaged by sanctions, the regime may be looking to compromise on the nuclear issue, says a leading Iran analyst.
“I think it was all there. They’re looking for a way out,” says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. “I think the mandate is to declare victory and solve the nuclear issue — after the election,” he added, in an interview several weeks before Friday’s ballot.
Other parts of the speech appear more plainly positive. At one point, Khamenei announces an endgame that Western negotiators would almost surely embrace: “If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognize the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Milani, a Tehran native who remains in touch with residents of his homeland, thinks he knows what motivated the expression of flexibility, months before the tsunami for Rohani. “The economy is hurting too much,” he says. He cites a flurry of anecdotal evidence suggesting the breaking point is near: Iranian businessmen – “people who work downstream in the petrochemical industry” – being asked to accept ten and twenty cents on the dollar owed for government work, the five to ten letters he receives each week from Iranian academics. “’I’m looking to get out,” the notes say. “You read their resumes,” Milani says. “Incredibly brilliant.”
“Some Iranians in Tehran are dancing in the streets. But here in Los Angeles, home to the largest community of Persians outside Iran, the reaction has been muted,” writes Robert Faturechi in the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s really sad that we’re hoping a Shia cleric is going to lead us out of the religious system,” said Siamak Kalhor, host on an Iranian-language radio station in Los Angeles, who voted absentee for Rohani. “We’re hoping a mullah is going to save us out of the mullahs’ hands…. It just shows, in hell there are certain dragons that are so scary that you find shelter among lions.”
“He is more liberal, quote unquote, than the others, but he’s not a reformist,” said Homa Sarshar, an Iranian activist and media personality. “For me, they’re all the same.”
*The Boroumand Foundation is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.