Reports that Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rohani spoke approvingly about concealing his nation’s nuclear program have raised fresh concerns about his moderate credentials.
“Rohani is not an outsider and any gains by him do not mean the system is weak or that there are serious cracks,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. “The ruling system has made sure that no one on the ballot is going to shake things up,” he told Associated Press.
Other observers propose moderating expectations of the consummate insider. “He’s not talking about fundamental reform, he’s talking about increasing social freedoms, a more diversified press, and he’s addressing the economy, which is why he was able to energize the electorate,” said Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program.
She worries that expectations of change once Rohani is inaugurated in August are excessive, given the resistance that can be expected from within the religious hierarchy, which controls foreign policy and holds fast to Islamic virtues.
“But you have to look at what didn’t happen,” Abdo tells the LA Times. “The authorities could have easily fixed the results and handed the presidency to [nuclear negotiator] Saeed Jalili or the mayor of Tehran [Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf], who both talked very hard on the nuclear issue.”
Then again, others note, it could be just such an insider who could nudge the hierarchy toward change.
“Rohani went through the Khamenei vetting process, so he can’t be radically different from the others in the leadership. But it’s important to remember that [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev spent decades inside the Communist Party hierarchy and went through its vetting process. A person on the inside can sometimes have more influence than someone from the opposition,” said analyst Najmedin Meshkati.
The Iranian presidency is a relatively weak institution with little control over key strategic decisions, including security and foreign policy, which remain the prerogatives of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
The election’s big surprise was not that Iranians voted for Rohani, says Roula Khalaf, the FT’s Middle East editor: “It is that the regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who had banked on a fundamentalist victory, allowed Mr Rohani to prevail.”
What matters now is what Rohani can get done within the straitjacket imposed by Khamenei, says Andrew Apostolou, a Middle East analyst based in Washington D.C.:
Rohani faces two practical tests if he is to placate the Iranian public. First, can he exert any influence over important issues, such as economic policy? Can he get rid of the corrupt multiple exchange rate system and tame inflation? Second, is Rohani willing to change direction? For example, can he release some of Iran’s high-profile political prisoners, such as the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (right)?
“It is appealing for outsiders to seek to strengthen Rohani’s hand so that he can pass these tests, Apostolou writes for The Daily Beast, noting that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has already declared that she is “firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership towards a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.”
“But the record shows that western attempts to play Iranian politics to strengthen the ‘moderates’ have failed. Since 1992, the E.U. has pursued a ’critical dialogue,’ followed by a ‘comprehensive dialogue’ with Iran—to no avail. Instead, after 21 years of talking, the E.U. now has harsher human rights sanctions on Iran than the U.S.,” he argues. “So instead of rushing to embrace Rohani, a better approach is to sit back and see what happens.”
Rohani is not a reformist, but he may follow in the steps of his mentor and align with them, observers suggest.
In truth, he “believes in the same pragmatic policies as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who has been in alliance with reformist forces in recent years”, says Najmeh Bozorgmeh, the FT’s Tehran correspondent. “Mr Rafsanjani’s backing for his campaign, and that of reformist leaders, was crucial to his victory.”
“Whether Khamenei seriously planned for Rohani’s victory, or simply calculated that the cost of preventing it would be too high, Rohani can serve Khamenei’s agenda at least as well as any other candidate,” says Mehdi Khalaji (left), a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Rohani’s victory created the impression of a democratic process and relieved the popular anger that has accumulated during the last eight years, especially since the rigged presidential election in 2009,” he writes for Project Syndicate. “Indeed, his triumph exposed a rift among Iran’s democratic forces, which were divided over whether to participate in the election, and rendered irrelevant the Green Movement.”
Rohani also benefited from divisions amongst the conservative Principalist forces and the Revolutionary Guards or Pasdaran, he notes.
“The infighting among conservatives and within the IRGC increased in the last few days before the election. And, with Rohani’s surprising first-round victory – and Khamenei’s refusal to endorse either candidate – both IRGC factions lost,” says Khalaji:
Khamenei was probably wise to step aside and let popular opinion prevail. Had either Jalili or Qalibaf been elected, the tension within the IRGC might have worsened, becoming difficult for Khamenei to control. And, by remaining on the sidelines, Khamenei may have been seeking to show the IRGC that there are limits to its power. RTWT
Rohani’s election demonstrates that “despite 10 years of the security establishment’s efforts to consolidate power, Iran’s multifaceted society has persevered,” argues Daniel Brumberg, a senior adviser on Middle East affairs at the US Institute for Peace:
The enduring discourse of human rights, a multi-factional struggle over economic policy, persistent battles over public university education, a bruised but extant parliament that had retained some sense of its own institutional prerogatives, as well fractious debates within a “Green Movement” – all of this suggests that a capacity for political transformation from within the existing institutions of the Islamic Republic remains a real and live option.
“It remains to be seen what a sustained transformation from within – as opposed to a full-fledged regime change – will look like,” adds Brumberg, who co-chairs the Iran Study Group.
“But it is precisely this kind of protracted, difficult and ultimately negotiated transformation that a Rohani presidency might help advance. His insistence on ‘inclusion’ and ‘reconciliation’ are thus encouraging, even if it will be difficult to achieve, particularly with a security establishment whose leaders expect to reassert their control.”
The election also demonstrated the “subversive utility of semi-democratic institutions in authoritarian states,” a prominent analyst suggests.
“It is a misreading of Iran’s complicated domestic dynamics to dismiss its elections or its representative institutions as mere window-dressing. And it was a mistake to disregard the brewing antagonisms within Iran’s political establishment as irrelevant,” says Suzanne Maloney, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy:
Iran’s elections matter because they provide openings for candidates to challenge the official narrative on thorny issues — as they did during this campaign on the nuclear issue — for journalists to push the envelope of state censorship, and for large gatherings of voters to demand the release of political prisoners, including the very candidates detained after the last rigged ballot. Elections — even explicitly orchestrated ones that offer only a highly imperfect array of options — release the genies from the bottles, to paraphrase a statement by Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s foremost dissidents.
“Elections— even ones that are heavily rigged— represent critical junctures in the lifecycle of political systems, and in Iran they have repeatedly sent the revolutionary system careening in new directions,” she told a Congressional hearing yesterday.
Rohani’s election campaign was noteworthy because he “questioned the necessity of the expanding security state and the constant oversight of student and civil society associations by the security agencies,” notes Shaul Bakash, a professor of history at George Mason University. “He spoke of the need for greater freedom of press and speech. He devoted attention to women’s rights issues and promised to establish a ministry for women’s affairs.”
As a cleric, Rohani could assuage the fears of the pious, Maloney notes – one of his campaign posters (above) read “A man of faith has come” – but his campaign also appealed to the disillusioned and marginalized.
“Rohani’s most powerful advantage was the bitter unhappiness of the Iranian people, who have witnessed the implosion of their currency, the return of austerity measures not seen since the Iran-Iraq War, and the erosion of their basic rights and freedoms over the past eight years,” she writes.
Rohani is not a reformist in the vein of former President Khatami, or the Green Movement leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, says Hooman Majd, the author of “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.”
“But he has announced his ambition to bolster civil rights, bring about greater social and political freedoms at home, and avoid his predecessor’s incendiary rhetoric, unwillingness to compromise and hard-line stance on the international stage,” he writes for The New York Times:
Elated though they may be over his victory, Iranians — as sophisticated as their counterparts in the West — are not delusional about what can or will be accomplished. But they can hope that the West will be receptive to the potential that his election might bring.
“The best way to strengthen those in Iran who hope to see a shift in the regime’s strategy is to make clear the price of that strategy,” argues Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Easing the pressure on the regime in response to an election would do the opposite, by sending the Khamenei the message that relief can be had on the cheap, without a true strategic shift.”
“In electing Rohani, Iranian voters made clear that they want to see change in their country,” he writes for The Washington Post:
In a sense, this puts them on the same page as the United States and our allies. We also wish to see change in Iran in the form of less hostile, less confrontational Iranian policies. The difference is that after election day, Iranians cannot hold their regime accountable — participatory democracy in Iran is limited to casting a vote once every four years, and even then is highly circumscribed. Washington, on the other hand, can hold the Iranian regime accountable — by demanding of Rohani and Khamenei changes not just to Iranian rhetoric, but also to Iranian actions.
“No one should pretend this is a shrinking violet in the Iranian presidency,” said the Saban Center’s Maloney. “This is someone who is very tough and absolutely a creature of the system, but this is the best we were going to do in this election.”