“THE election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s new president has created a sense that there are new possibilities of progress on the nuclear issue; we need to respond, but warily,” says a former special assistant to the president for the Middle East and South Asia.
“Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allowed Mr. Rohani to win the election recognizing that he had run against current Iranian policies that have isolated the country and invited economically disastrous sanctions,” notes Dennis Ross, a counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“But it isn’t clear why Mr. Khamenei allowed such an outcome, and here are some theories that have been proposed,” he writes for The New York Times:
He believes that Mr. Rohani’s election could provide a safety valve for the great discontent within Iran.
He believes that Mr. Rohani, a president with a moderate face, might be able to seek an open-ended agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that would reduce tensions and ease sanctions now, while leaving Iran room for development of nuclear weapons at some point in the future.
He believes that Mr. Rohani might be able to start talks that would simply serve as a cover while Iran continued its nuclear program.
He wants to rebalance the power relationship among Iran’s leading factions, reconciling their fissures while restoring the relative weight of the clerics vis-à-vis the Revolutionary Guard. Mr. Rohani is himself a cleric, but also a likely conciliator who might be a bridge between the harder-line clerics and more pragmatic forces.
The cleric’s landslide victory “granted most Iranians a collective sigh of relief,” says analyst Farnaz Fassihi.
“Rohani is a moderate cleric and western-trained lawyer who was endorsed by the pro-democracy opposition and reformist political parties,” she writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Many Iranians—at least the 18 million who voted for Mr.Rohani—hope that his government will put an end to eight turbulent years of repression, embarrassing diplomatic mishaps and economic woes.”
While some observers view him as a moderate, Rohani comes to office as an insider, notes one observer.
“On many issues, including political freedoms, the growing presence of government informants among student and civil society associations, Iran’s international relations and its nuclear negotiations with the West, and the state of the economy, he used language and adopted a posture at odds with those of the ruling conservatives and, indirectly, of the supreme leader,” she writes for The New York Review of Books:
While regime conservatives paint a rosy picture of Iran’s international standing, Rohani spoke during the campaign of the “clouded visage” of Iran in the world. Conservatives describe Iran as the freest country in the world, but Rohani spoke of the “the bowed silhouette” of freedom in the country, and of the need to free political prisoners. Both the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation,* an Iranian human rights group in Washington, DC, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimate the number of political prisoners at any one time at around five hundred, although many hundreds more pass through the prison system for short periods of incarceration. Rohani also promised to establish a ministry for women’s affairs, to pay attention to women’s rights, and to remove restrictions on women’s access to higher education imposed by the outgoing government. He also spoke vaguely of a “charter of rights” for all citizens.
(*A grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.)
“Rohani is realistic enough to know that no faction in Iran’s highly polarized system can achieve such an agenda on its own,” says Mohsen Milani, the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida.
“Rohani is no democrat or even a serious reformer,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “He is a centrist politician, an ultimate insider, with a mission to save the Islamic Republic from itself, improve the economy, prevent a war with the United States, and find a solution to the nuclear impasse. He has to operate in a system that is remarkably resilient to reform, and has made anti-Americanism the key pillar of its foreign policy.”
He recognized that attempts to go it alone by both President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist faction and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s conservatives “only led to tension and fissures within the elite,” notes Milani:
Rohani’s victory is, therefore, likely to gradually shift the balance of power toward the moderate center. He can rely on strong support from pragmatic former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformist Khatami, both of whom endorsed his campaign. Rohani worked for each and is in a good position to unify their supporters by including them in his government. To lock in the reformists’ backing, of course, Rohani has to deliver on his campaign promise to release Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karubi, leaders of the Green Movement, from house arrest.
When he takes office in August, Rohani will probably seek to “overhaul some of the economic policies of Ahmadinejad, who pledged to spread oil wealth among the poorest, and shifted food and energy subsidies toward cash hand-outs,” Bloomberg reports.
“Under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s economy was founded on populism,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Rohani needs to change the tenor of that.”
The reformists’ likely inability to effect genuine change may ultimately facilitate the emergence of a serious democratic force, some observers suggest.
“Neither Mr. Rohani nor any other establishment figure will be able to deliver what Iranians seek within the confines of the Islamic Republic,” said analyst Kaveh Shahrooz. “But one can now hold out hope that the vote will deepen fractures among Iran’s powerbrokers, providing space for a genuine democracy movement to grow.”
Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, told Time’s Karl Vick that those fractures might already be running through the establishment.
“They’re looking for a way out,” he said. “The economy is hurting too much.”
“The success of Rohani’s presidency depends on his ability to forge compromise and walk a very thin grey line,” said Cliff Kupchan at Eurasia Group. “Rohani has the background, temperament and connections to be a unifying figure if he plays a shrewd political strategy.”
“Rohani’s powers are limited: he cannot appoint judges or the chief of the judiciary; he cannot appoint the chiefs of the security forces,” notes the Wilson Center’s Esfandiari:
But one of his predecessors, Mohammad Khatami, succeeded in removing the intelligence minister—twice—reining in the ministry and purging it of its most notorious elements. Khatami also succeeded in lifting restrictions on the press, book publishing and political association. The security services are much stronger today, but Rohani has a model he can emulate. And as president, he can at least provide a moral voice and speak out against the widespread violation of human rights.
On the occasion of Hassan Rohani’s election as Iran’s new president, the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program compiled the views of 26 Iran experts on the topic, “The Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges of the New Iranian President, Hassan Rohani.”
“One key challenge facing Iran’s leaders, and president-elect Rohani in particular, will be to find a way back to some kind of political consensus—one that will allow voices that were excluded or silenced over the last four years to reenter the formal political arenas and to express themselves through the media,” said Daniel Brumberg, senior program officer, Center for Conflict Management, United States Institute of Peace:
I am not talking ambitiously here about political reform writ large, much less democratization. But if there is going to be any hope for bridging the ideological and social gap between Iran’s youth—particularly those who occupy the vast but alienated urban middle class centers—and the regime, this must begin with some political decompression. One central obstacle to such a dynamic has been the growing political and economic power of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its key allies, not least of whom is the Supreme Leader.
“Although he is to the right of Khatami, Rohani might use his credibility with pragmatic principlists to help negotiate some kind of accommodation.” Brumberg suggests.” But under the difficult domestic and political conditions Iran is now facing, the leader himself might not oppose such an effort, and what is more, as Khatami himself put it to a group of university students, even a modest political opening would create space for a ‘Reformist discourse’.”
Some observers argue that Rohani’s was “an attempt to save Velayat-e- Faqih, i.e., the rule of religious authority of the grand ayatollah,” writes Roksana Bahramitash, director of research in Islam, Pluralism, and Globalization, University of Montreal:
They say that Ayatollah Khamenei permitted Rohani’s presidency because only a moderate can guarantee the survival of the supremacy of religious leadership. Others view Rohani’s win as a result of the Iranian people’s eagerness for democracy. However, one point is clear: Iranian women and young people took to the ballot box in great numbers, to express their support for Rohani.
“Isn’t it ironic? After more than three decades of complaining about clerical rule, liberal Iranians are relieved that the only cleric among six presidential candidates won!,” writes Boston University professor Houchang Chehabi:
Rohani is no liberal, and reform-minded Iranians voted for him faute de mieux. Keeping those who voted for him engaged with the institutions of the Islamic Republic, while not overstepping the numerous red lines drawn by the conservatives who hold real power, is a major challenge for the new president.
“Rohani’s first challenge is to oversee a degree of political reconciliation at the national level,” analyst Farideh Farhi suggests:
Without this, movement in other areas will again face gridlock. His campaign message of “moderation and prudence” suggests that he understands the importance of moving the country away from a hard security approach to Iran’s problems and challenges and toward the center of Iran’s political spectrum—the only place where a degree of reconciliation can occur at this moment. From there his challenge is to negotiate between the demands of those pushing for faster change—as the post-election street celebrations are showing, the Green Movement is far from a spent force—and the resistance of many institutional players.
Rohani is going to face numerous challenges, some more urgent than others, says Meir Javedanfar (right), Iranian politics lecturer at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, including:
1. Control inflation: this is the most urgent challenge that will need Rohani’s immediate attention. Ahmadinejad’s populist expenditure policies such as cheap loans, which have flooded Iran’s economy with cash, have pushed up inflation to almost 30 percent.
2. Reform parts of the subsidies reform program: this will include investing parts of the government savings from this program in Iran’s industrial sector, as originally planned. Parts of the program may also need to be postponed, as the cash handout given to Iranians as an alternative to subsidies have contributed to the high level of inflation.
The elections debunk the myth of Iran as a totalitarian system, argues Kaveh Ehsani, assistant professor at DePaul University:
This is effectively a republican (though hardly democratic) system where no one has hegemony and popular opinion does mediate political distribution of power. Since 1979, futile attempts to monopolize power by single factions keep failing, and the popular vote has had to be acknowledged as the means to divide power among a fragmented elite. As Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps acknowledged their setback, these elections can be seen in the long run as another tentative but significant step toward more political pluralism. The challenge facing Rohani is to rebuild trust in vital state institutions where meritocracy and competence have been severely undermined.
“The dream of radical regime change is no longer realistic since domestic and foreign constraints have imposed a new national consensus: a clear majority facing a strong opposition, as it is the case in most democratic countries,” says Bernard Hourcade, a senior research fellow, Centre National de la recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris.
If Rohani is genuinely seeking reforms, “the big challenge for him is to maintain a delicate balance between the demands of the reformers and progressives and the structural constraints of a non-democratic regime that has granted limited power to the presidency,” says Nayereh Tohidi, former chair at the Department of Gender and Women Studies, California State University:
This is in contrast to the absolute and lifelong rule of the supreme jurisprudence, the supreme leader, who, through a close alliance with the Revolutionary Guards Corps, can control the process and outcome of elections. Together, they have maintained a chokehold on Iran’s political and economic institutions.