Iran’s new president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, won a landslide victory in June, collecting more than fifty percent of the vote, more than three times that of the runner-up. He’ll be officially sworn in this weekend.
The 64 year old moderate, known as the “diplomat sheikh”, is a welcome relief from the malevolent presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both inside Iran and abroad. In contrast to Ahmadinejad’s hate-mongering and open abomination of Israel and America, Rouhani has called for engagement with the West. He described his win as a “victory of moderation.”
But we all know campaign slogans are easy to offer and difficult to honor. Real reform will be hard to deliver in the Persian theocracy. And while the world can be optimistic about a change in tone from Iran, we should not expect a change in policy. Here are four reasons why.
1. Rouhani will still be in the pocket of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Leading up to the election, the Guardian Council, Iran’s most powerful legislative and judicial body, rejected all but eight of the nearly 700 candidates for the presidency, ensuring that whoever won the office had been vetted and approved by the country’s managers. Rouhani fits the profile. His broad support and pragmatic pledges give him the look of a man of the people, but at day’s end he is a product of the establishment. A cleric and a political insider, Rouhani headed the national security council for 16 years and served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. He is more moderate than the men he ran against, but Rouhani will stick to the script of the conservative regime.
2. In Iran’s political architecture, the president is mostly a figurehead anyway, trotting through interviews and speeches while the Ayatollah holds the reins. This means that even if Rouhani tries to break the mold, his spot on top and any major political decisions are at the mercy of the Supreme Leader. As we were reminded during the second term of Ahmadinejad’s eight-year mandate—during which the president engaged in a bickering match-turned-power struggle with other political hardliners—the buck stops with the Ayatollah. Nothing has changed for Rouhani. A puppet, even one with charm and supported by the people, is still subservient to the whims of the puppet master.
3. Iran is not interested in changing positions on its nuclear program or the war in Syria. A former darling of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy team, Rouhani has torpedoed the idea of putting the brakes on the program. He has long asserted Iran’s right to pursue uranium enrichment and calls any contrary resolutions “unacceptable.” Frankly, he has every reason to be so bold. As argued in a recent cover story of The Economist, Iran is nearly within reach of the bomb, likely a year or less away from “critical capability—the point at which it could make a dash to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more bombs before the IAEA or Western intelligence agencies would even know it had done so.” Israel and the United States have time and again drawn vague lines in the sand, threatening military action if Iran crosses over, but such action seems more unlikely now than ever before (with the US limping out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel reluctant to attack unilaterally). A nuclear Iran appears inevitable under Rouhani’s tenure.
Regarding the Syrian conflict, there is no sign of Iran softening its support for Bashar Assad’s regime. Khamenei is committed to his Syrian ally. He recognizes the importance of aid to this hub of the Shia Crescent, and popular opposition to the funneling of already contracting resources out of the country will not be enough to stem the flow.
4. Sanctions will remain, preventing any large-scale economic reform. Since the ramping up of sanctions by the US and the EU in recent years, Iran has lost tens of billions in oil revenue. According to a June report from David Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in 2012 Iran’s GDP “fell by some 5 to 8 percent—the largest drop since 1988, the final year of the Iran-Iraq war, and the first contraction in twenty years.” The Iranian rial “lost over two-thirds of its value in the last two years.” Additionally, inflation and unemployment continue to rise.
Are there any reasons to be hopeful?
Maybe. Iran’s election appears to have gone off without much in the way of hitches. Accusations of fraud and vote-rigging that plagued the 2009 campaign, leading to violent protests by supporters of reform candidate Mir-Houssein Mousavi, have been largely inaudible this time around. Many see Rouhani’s victory as redemption for his fellow centrist.
The other glimmer of hope is the potential to turn the Iranian economy upright. Impressed by Rouhani’s openness and reasonability in contrast to Ahmadinejad, Western powers like France and Canada congratulated Rouhani on his victory (as did regional competitors like the Sunni state of Saudi Arabia). Increased transparency would boost Iran’s standing with the rest of the world, making direct talks a real possibility. Even the United States has said as much. Though sanctions aren’t likely to abate substantially, even small reductions would leave room for market growth, which was the central debate of the election.
Rouhani’s ascension will be ratified by the Ayatollah on Aug. 3, after which he will take the oath of office and begin his term. His power will be limited and his ability and desire to affect policy may be minimal, but with Rouhani as host, the West may at least join Iran at the table.