Hassan Rouhani: What His Presidency Will Mean For Iran


On June 14 the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era of controversy and polarizing rhetoric came to an end. Thousands of supporters of President-Elect Hassan Rouhani chanted “Ahmadi, bye bye” throughout Iran as a sense of guarded optimism swept through the country’s reformist population. After three weeks of campaigning, Rouhani emerged victorious securing over 50% of votes cast by the Iranian electorate, of which over 70% turned out on Election Day.

The most important issue crippling the Iranian population remains its nuclear program. International sanctions have brought the Iranian economy to its knees. Though some are predicting Rouhani’s government will be more pragmatic, there is little certainty that this will be the case once he is at the helm. His reformist image should not distort the fact that he retains the favor of the hardliners who are generally the country's most powerful clerics and politicians. 

In his previous stint as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), and hence chief nuclear negotiator, Rouhani's approach was undoubtedly friendlier and moderate than that of the current chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, who had the strong backing of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the election. Khamenei’s position allows him to have a final say on many national issues, including the nuclear question. Even under a potentially more progressive Rouhani government, little is expected to change.

While Rouhani may be touted as a reformist, his acceptance among hardliners in Iran’s top clerical circles is significant. He currently sits on an number of important panels, including the Assembly of Experts — a body that remains under the direct control of Khamenei, whose blessing is required for anyone chosen to be in this prestigious institution. With such close ties to the top Iranian clerics, it is unlikely that Rouhani will pose any serious challenge to Khamenei’s leadership.

While Khamenei’s favorite candidate was Saeed Jalili, notoriously known for his uncompromising stand on the nuclear program, Rouhani is seen as more of an olive branch for moderates — a token reformer who may appear more accommodating but is still unlikely to present any threat to Khamenei and his followers.

In 2003, shortly after assuming his post as chief nuclear negotiator, Rouhani had decided to voluntarily suspend nuclear enrichment, thereby creating a breakthrough in talks with the West. Unfortunately, this progress ended in a personal political embarrassment for Rouhani as talks with the p5+1 failed. Hardliners were quick to criticize his actions and accused him of portraying the country as weak in the face of its detractors.

Shortly thereafter, in June 2005, Ahmadinejad, a tough-talking and fervent supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, was swept into the presidential office.

Another great challenge for Rouhani will be to secure an understanding with the current chairman of the SNSC, Saeed Jalili, who was a candidate himself in these recently concluded elections. Jalili is noted to be a tough negotiator and has been described by Tehran university professor Marandi as “a tough negotiator [who] believes strongly in Iran's nuclear program and its sovereign rights. He's not the sort of person to give major concessions."

Shortly after his win, Rouhani proclaimed on the topic of Iran’s nuclear conundrum, “I will first show more transparency for strengthening trust and whenever the trust is tarnished, I will try to rebuild it again.” While the tone is right and his pragmatism sincere, Iranian’s political structure is unlikely to release Khamenei's grip over national issues. He enjoys the support of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, members of his own council, and the political hardliners.

Defying Khamenei even remotely will be a serious task for the moderate Rouhani. The nuclear program is unlikely to change its current course, which remains a deadlock more or less. If Rouhani’s previous experiences in dealing with these matters are to have any influence on his future policy, the Iranians and the international community alike would be wise not to hold their breath.

The author can be reached on Twitter @UsaidMuneeb16