This article is simultaneously published in Foreign Policy In Focus and some other journals.
The landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate and pro-reform cleric, in Iran’s recent presidential election came as a surprise to many observers within and outside of Iran.
Although Rouhani’s electoral victory was a major gain for the moderate and reformist political groups -and consequently a major loss for the conservative groups in Iran- its implications are far greater than a mere adjustment in the balance of power in Iran’s domestic politics. Restoring public trust in Iran’s electoral system can be regarded as the most important byproduct of Rouhani’s electoral victory. While a sizable portion of Iran’s population had lost faith in the integrity and fairness of Iran’s electoral system and had become alienated after the disputed 2009 presidential elections, the electoral of victory of Rouhani in his race against several conservative government-favored presidential candidates without recourse to run-off elections helped restore public trust in the electoral system and promote national reconciliation and cohesion. Although the political competition in Iran is relatively constrained, the somewhat regular rotation of executive and parliamentary power between the reformist and conservative camps over the past two decades has provided the Iranian political system with a democratic face, thus boosting its political legitimacy in the eyes of most citizens.
This has in turn led to increased security for the Iranian political system. The unprecedented 2009 post-election protests and the continued challenges posed by the so-called Green Movement to the conservative authorities in the following months and years had created an acute sense of vulnerability for the Iranian leaders, thus resulting in an unusually paranoid rule and a highly-politicized domestic climate over much of the last four years in Iran. The healthy and undisputed nature of Iran’s recent presidential election, along with high voter turnout, have contributed to a greater sense of security for the Iranian political system. Increased regime security is expected to translate into improved political tolerance at home and increased self-confidence in external relations by the Iranian government.
Domestic political constraints facing Rouhani
While greater regime security translates into increased self-confidence in external relations, the direction of Iran’s foreign policy will be a function of the preferences of its current political elites acting within domestic and external constraints. Although Iran’s president elect is a moderate and pro-reform politician who has promised ‘constructive engagement’ with the outside world and a more rational and calculated foreign policy, as I have noted elsewhere, “given the fragmented nature of Iran’s political system and various checks and balances therein, no radical change is produced by a mere change of president, in Iran’s domestic politics as well as in its foreign policy”. It helps to recall that “even under the simultaneous control of the executive and the legislature by the reformists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy were not radically transformed, even though some meaningful change was noticeable in some areas of foreign policy and domestic politics”. However, “while the supreme leader has the final say on key foreign policy issues, the president may also influence those foreign policy decisions, due to his role as the elected representative of the national electorate. Generally speaking, a pragmatic or moderate president can to a certain degree moderate Iran’s foreign policy while an ultraconservative or revolutionary president can radicalize Iran’s foreign policy behavior”.
Will Rouhani be the second Khatami?
How successful Rouhani will be in exerting influence on Iran’s key foreign policy decisions as well as on issues of domestic politics remains to be seen. One tempting way to outline the prospects of Rouhani’s presidency in terms of both foreign policy and domestic politics is to compare it with the performance of former President Mohammad Khatami, whose surprise landslide victory in 1997 presidential election lead to the rise of the Iranian reform movement. While the two events are similar in some fundamental ways, they also differ in some important respects. One of the main differences is that, having witnessed the political developments of the late 1990s and early 2000s in Iran, the Iranian conservative authorities have already gained practical experience in containing the power of reformist-controlled executive and legislative branches. This is why, unlike the landslide electoral victory of Khatami in 1997 which sent panic through the ranks of conservative political circles in Iran, the electoral victory of Rouhani has not created any noticeable fears among the conservatives. After all, Rouhani’s rise to executive power is not viewed as threatening to the foundations of the Islamic political system. In light of the above and given Rouhani’s centrist position and his trusted relationship with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Rouhani is expected to face less resistance from conservative circles in realizing his electoral promises. This would stand in sharp contrast to Khatami’s tenure which was punctuated by numerous domestic political crises.
The second major difference is that Khatami predominantly ran his electoral campaign on the promises of creating a better environment for civil and political liberties at home and normalizing Iran’s foreign relations in 1997. Running against the backdrop of Rafsanjani’s two-term presidency, which was primarily devoted to promoting economic development and reconstruction, Khatami’s narrative was less prominent in his vision of a more efficient economic management. Khatami, instead, emphasized that political development should be pursued in tandem with economic development, thus achieving a balanced development. Unlike Khatami, Rouhani ran his electoral campaign both on the promises of a sound and more efficient economic management and a wiser and more ‘constructive engagement’ with the outside world. Meanwhile, he also advocated a more relaxed social and political environment at home. This difference is another reason why Rouhani is expected to face less challenges from conservative circles as compared to Khatami in realizing his plans, as a lot of his electoral promises are shared with his conservative rivals.
Dealing with economic problems as first priority
The special domestic and international circumstances facing Iran today have defined different priorities for the Iranian leadership today than in the late 1990s. This explains why Rouhani, like most of his conservative rivals, highlighted his plans for addressing the dire economic situation at home through a more efficient economic management and better relations with the outside world. It also explains why most presidential candidates were critical of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy including his handling of the nuclear issue and attacked Saeed Jalili’s role (another conservative government-favored presidential candidate) as the chief nuclear negotiator under Ahamadinejad for being incompetent and unproductive.
The electoral victory of Rouhani thus reflects the public perception that he will be better poised than his conservative rivals to address those immediate needs. Perhaps no words better capture this sentiment than the opening lines of an editorial by a Persian-language Iranian news website, affiliated with the former Revolutionary Guards commander and a losing independent-leaning presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaee. Published right after Iran’s election results were announced, the editorial read “The defeat of the Principlists (conservatives) was necessary, even more so than daily bread! The Principlists should understand that they cannot be inefficient and at the same time expect the people to once again embrace them in droves”. The editorial reached its punch line by noting that “The people said ‘no’ to the Principlists because they cherish life and wished to send a new greeting to life. The Principlists should understand that people desire a better life more than anything else”.
Rouhani’s electoral victory and the general consensus among the Iranian political elites today on the need to address Iran’s economic problems as the first priority and to pursue a more calculated and rational foreign policy, however, should not be understood to mean that Iran is willing to suspend its core uranium enrichment activities. What it signifies however is that Iran is more determined now to address Western concerns about its nuclear activities and to build further international trust in its nuclear program in return for lifting Western economic sanctions and recognizing its peaceful nuclear activities. As Rouhani stated in his post-election press conference, there are a variety of mutual confidence-building measures, short of suspending nuclear enrichment activities, that Iran is willing to engage in to help build further international trust in its nuclear program, provided that Western powers are committed to genuine reciprocity vis-à-vis Iran. While Iran’s new elected president has declared to be open to ‘constructive engagement’ with Western powers over Iran’s nuclear issue, the Iranian leadership is expected to be realistic as before in its expectations of Western powers to respond in kind to its new overtures. This is why the main pillar of Iran’s multi-pronged strategy in its current standoff with the West over its nuclear issue is expected to be continued national resistance through immunizing its economy to Western economic pressures by taking a variety of economic measures to reduce dependency on oil revenues, foster economic growth and curtail unnecessary imports.