Iran Elections 2013: Will Hassan Rohani Really Change Iran for the Better?


By now, everyone knows that a moderate cleric won Iran's presidential race, giving hope to the West that the reformist voice in Iran is still present and active. So who is this Hassan Rohani?

Rohani's career in politics is decades long, starting in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution that replaced Iran's monarchy with an Islamic theocracy. He served five consecutive terms in the parliament, holding prestigious positions like first deputy speaker and foreign relations committee chairman, until leaving politics in the year 2000. After a few years off, Rohani returned in 2003 to become Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, and his interactions with Western officials portrayed him as a "tough but fair" patriot who seemed eager to cooperate with the West's demands if it led to mutual benefits. His last political role was in the Assembly of Experts that advises the ayatollah, Iran's supreme religious leader.

By his own admission, Rohani's biggest achievements in political office have been Iran's "active impartiality" during the Gulf War, building a security partnership with Saudi Arabia, and the "reasonable position" of Iran following the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. None of these events may resonate with the average American, but they do show a moderate side of the Iranian Republic.

The question that remains is, will this moderate attitude be translated into real change?

The most important thing to note is that though Rohani is the new president, his power is heavily tempered by the ayatollah, who has primary control over matters like national security and foreign affairs. Everything Rohani wants or claims to want must be taken with a grain of salt, as the ayatollah will have an influence on all major decisions. Specifically, experts predict that Iran's hostile stance towards Israel and its cooperation with Syria are not likely to be impacted by Rohani's presidency.

Still, Rohani has several factors working in his favor. The first is that he has worked well as a diplomat with the West before, and he wants Iran to be seen as a rational player in the international realm. He is likely to foster better relations with the West for that purpose. The second is that as president, Rohani is in charge of the economy, which is currently struggling because of economic sanctions against Iran's nuclear goals. Therefore, while Rohani has little direct say over matters of nuclear activity, he will perhaps be more cooperative with the West on that front as well. Lastly, Rohani's campaign heavily emphasized human rights, promising both a domestic "civil rights charter" and improvements to the status of women and minorities. These are issues that Rohani should be able to push relatively easily and that will hopefully grant the Iranian people more liberties.

In light of this, the West is being cautiously optimistic. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement stating that the U.S. was still "concerned about the lack of transparency" in the Iranian government, but also "admire[d] the courage of the Iranian people who ... have clearly expressed their desire for a new and better future."

The next big date for Rohani is August 4, the date of his inauguration. Until then, Rohani will be busy building his team of advisors, which will also provide a glimpse into the policies he will prioritize and how much he wants to negotiate with the West. The end result, hopefully, is a more moderate Iran, though that outcome is still a while away.