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How Rouhani Could Change Iran [USA]


Hassan Rouhani, the incoming president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was the only cleric candidate and won more than 50 percent of the vote. He received enough votes to prevent conservative voices from gathering against him in the second round. The elections and transfer of power passed peacefully, demonstrating a possible consolidation of electoral democracy in Iran with respect to the electoral process.

Rouhani has assumed the role of president, constitutionally the second most important man in the country after the Supreme Leader, amid tense circumstances in the country. Iran today faces heavy international sanctions and chaotic domestic rivalry among three political factions: conservatives, reformists and hardliners.

The conservative wing is gathered around Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and follows his cautious but sometimes pragmatic political path. The reformist movement connected with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kerrubi, now under house arrest, voice assumed leadership within the Green Movement after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second presidential win assumed by.

Hardliners had power for the last eight years under Ahmadinejad and prominent clerical leader of the Guardian Council (sometimes called the Iranian Bilderberg group) Ahmad Jannati. Ahmadinejad was also a choice of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia.

Economic pressures

Revolutionary committees, militia forces (basij) and other mobilization structures during the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war are not disbanded but have evolved into interest cartels controlled by influential and elite Revolutionary Guards. These cartels are called bonyad and manage confiscated and nationalized enterprises, with the excuse that it helps the goals of the Islamic revolution and the development of Iran’s foreign relations. They became the main state contractors, especially for the defence industry and the Revolutionary Guard, thus creating an economic realm where they developed ties with members of the political elite and were influential in the country and abroad.

Bonyads control about 40 percent of Iran’s economy, and in 1994 some 58 percent of the national budget was allocated to them, at least according to data from Said Amir Arjomand, an expert in Iranian domestic politics. Leaders of bonyads are not responsible to the state but directly to Khamenei. They gain special profits obtained from an annuity military-industrial-commercial complex and have a special license to import and export goods. Together with the Revolutionary Guards they control the Mehrabad airport in Tehran and seaports in the Persian Bay. They receive support from clerical families and their friends, as well as donors from economic foundations.

Nepotism blossoms through a new political-economic elite named aghazadehgan (master’s sons), composed of upper level clerical families. Power of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia throughbonyads was seriously regarded when Ahmadinejad, their preferred candidate, was elected.

Given these complex dynamics, it is illusory to expect Rouhani to achieve greater progress in the economy unless international sanctions were lifted to re-open the oil market and prevent further inflation of the rial.

The Rouhani administration will have difficult times ahead, as he explained in a statement to the media: “A multitude of problems and issues face us today. I have come forward with full knowledge of all the problems and have stepped into this position despite the unparalleled issues facing the nation which I will share them with the nation later. No government in the history of Iran has faced the problems that this new administration faces,”, Rouhani said.

Change is coming

Rouhani will have to balance these forces in order to fulfil his mission. Ghoncheh Tazmini, a political analyst and research director at the Ravand Institute for Economic and International Studies in Iran, a think tank, strongly believes Iran will experience change as Rouhani breathes new life into the Islamic republic. She based her optimism on two main reasons:

“”The first is that his moderate inclination will bring about the same subtle yet tangible results Mohammad Khatami’s presidency brought. These are qualitative and conceptual changes rather than quantitative. These are palpable, substantive changes that will reverberate within Iranian society. At the state level, he will bring about a ‘politics of normalcy.’”

“The second reason stems from the fact that he is as much a conservative, establishment figure as he is a moderate figure. Thus, he will have more political ‘purchasing power’ and elicit piecemeal results because he is cut from the same cloth as establishment figures.”

Tazmini compares Rouhani with the experience of Khatami’s rule. “Khatami tried to move Iranian politics beyond tumultuous times towards a regular politics. In the context of Khatami’s reform campaign, the ‘politics of normalcy’ reflected the state of a country that had endured years of turbulent social and revolutionary change” she said. Tazmini believes Rouhani’s presidency will represent the explicit project of a return to normalcy wherein Iran would avoid diplomatic isolation and seek to eliminate revolutionary-style politics, self-reliant economic policies and rigid social mores.

It is a shift towards more pragmatic politics characterized by an effort to define Iran’s politics by repudiating revolutionary politics, Tazmini said, and that Rouhani’s Iran will produce a revival of the politics of normalcy where ideological radicalism will give way to broader interests of a 21st- century Iran.

Rouhani’s message to clerics July 3 conveyed this direction: “A strong government does not mean a government that interferes and intervenes in all affairs. It is not a government that limits the lives of people. This is not a strong government”. And instead of strong government, his speeches are full of government of moderation.

Rouhani might well succeed, but if we reconsider Khatami’s efforts, some worries persist. Khatami was even more connected to the conservative establishment, both clerically and through family ties. Rouhani has an advantage of not being part of any faction while still preserving an image of established cleric. Tazmini calls it the Rouhani brand: “He is the reconciliation of the contending and competing ideological tension between reformist/pragmatist and conservative-traditionalist camps – a compromise of sorts.”

In fact, the Supreme Leader refused to share his favorite candidate with the public. On various occasions, the Leader emphasized the necessity of holding healthy elections, noting that even his family members did not know for whom he would vote.

Moderation in foreign policy

Another big question that remains is Iran’s foreign policy. Rouhani has a great deal of experience in this area. He presided over the Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005 and served as the National Security Advisor to Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami. From 1991 until the elections he led the Political, Defense and Security committee in the Expediency council. He has extensive experience in diplomatic negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the subject of his book of memoirs.

At his first press conference, after the election, Rouhani set key determinants for Iranian foreign policy. Among them is a clear attitude about nuclear energy. Iran will not stop uranium enrichment, said Rouhani, but will increase transparency and show the world that Iran’s nuclear program is fully in line with international standards. This could mean that Rouhani will draw on his old connections and relationships in the IAEA and re-enable inspectors from this agency to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would at least partially reduce international tension and possibly eliminate sanctions that heavily burden Iran’s economy.

Reuters reported earlier in July that diplomats in Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is based, believe there will be an IAEA-Iran meeting in mid-August, shortly before the Agency issues its next quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program and ahead of a week-long session of the United Nations agency’s 35-nation governing board in September.

Rouhani seeks “a constructive relationship with the world” and advocates moderation, which is reminiscent Khatami program “Dialogue among Civilizations.” The program’s tenets could help re-employ Iranian diplomacy through cultural centers.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iranian-German political scientist and expert on Iranian sanctions and the Iran-West stalemate, discussed this turn in Iranian foreign policy with The Atlantic Post. “In accordance with the desire expressed by the bulk of Iranians, Rouhani has indeed promised a foreign policy geared towards the reduction of tensions and the pursuit of national interests equally cognizant of the country’s sovereignty and the population’s well-being that is closely linked to the heavy burden of sanctions. This will be a prerequisite towards settling the now decade-old so-called nuclear crisis.”

Regarding sanctions, “the responsibility for their desperately needed removal will remain with those who have imposed them in the first place,” said Fathollah-Nejad. “This entails that during the next rounds of negotiations between Iran and the great powers, in response to Iranian concessions the United States and the European Union will have to offer a substantive relief of sanctions.” Fathollah-Nejad believes financial relief should be first priority and that the West should “immediately start preparing the political room for that” and decide how to remove institutional obstacles towards that end.

Rouhani also touched on the topic of Syria, saying that the future of the Syrian authorities must be in the hands of the Syrian people. This statement brings up two sensitive topics. First, Rouhani stated that Iran does not believe that anyone other than the Syrian people should decide on the situation in the country, including international forces. Second, Iran’s ties with Syria are long and complex. The Alawite Syrian leadership is closely connected with the Shi’a Hezbollah, the pro-Syrian Lebanese opposition. Iran directly funds Hezbollah is directly funded by the Iranian government. Hezbollah in Lebanon was created by radical Iranian cleric Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, whose forces are trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Finally, Rouhani said that old wounds need to heal between Iran and the United States, opening the possibility of re-announcing talks with Washington. This statement interpreted as bold, is a continuation of Khamenei policy.

The 444 days following the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the Iran-Contra affair in 1986 strained relations between the two countries. But we should not forget that Iran has played a constructive role in the Middle East in the past. The pragmatic alliance of Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khamenei controlled Iran’s foreign policy with revolutionary rhetoric. Iran quietly cooperated in the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Gulf War, despite Saddam Hussein’s offer to return to the border agreement of 1975.

Iran has improved its relations with all Muslim countries, successfully hosted several summits of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and worked with Caspian Sea nations. Historically, while Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami repeatedly tried to open ties with Washington, personal differences were insurmountable. The powerful American-Israeli Public Affairs (AIPAC) and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher bolstered the diplomatic blockade between the two countries.

When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to meet with Iran’s chief diplomat in 1998, Khamenei blocked the meeting. When he later decided to send his commissioner Larijani to the White House, George Bush was not interesting in talking to the Iranians. During President Barack Obama’s first term, Ahmadinejad stood defiant on the Iranian side. Perhaps Obama and Rouhani, with the consent of Khamenei, could really begin talks at foreign policy level.

Fathollah-Nejad confirms this possibility, calling Rouhani “a pragmatic realist.” “Rouhani will offer a unique opportunity for reducing tensions with the U.S. An improvement in Iran-U.S. relations will, however, also be dependent on Washington, where it remains to be seen if the pro-engagement camp can seize upon this historical opportunity offered by Rouhani’s election to effectively force back the confrontational camp there.” The consequences could be dire if this opportunity is missed, he said.

Rouhani may potentially be more influential in foreign policy than Khatami, to whom he is often compared. Rouhani [has], in addition, [been the] head of Iran’s major think-tank and bastion of its realist school of thought, the Center for Strategic Research, and more learned and experienced than Khatami, Fathollah-Nejad said.

“More than anyone else, Rouhani will be qualified in communicating and explaining Tehran’s foreign-policy stances to a domestic audience in need of a balanced account on foreign-policy issues ranging from nuclear diplomacy to the Syrian crisis,” he said.

Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour, former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations recently assessed the election outcome, saying, “The actual result of presidential polls in the Islamic Republic was undoubtedly an analytical shock to those who believed that there is no election in Iran, but selection.”

These forecasts suggest four years of a more moderate and open Iran resembling the Khatami era. Yet Rouhani will contend with Khamenei and the status quo organization of the Islamic republic,bonyads and a resolute attitude in foreign policy. At the same time, he has an opportunity to relax the tension in Iranian society and try to break the country’s international isolation.


Vedran Obućina is an Atlantic Post contributor in Rijeka, Croatia.



Vedran Obućina (2013) “How Rouhani Could Change Iran“, The Atlantic Post (Washington, DC), 6 August.