Hassan Rouhani won the presidency in a landslide victory in the first round of Iran’s presidential elections. With over 50% of the vote, he left Saeed Jalili, his opponent in the debates and favorite of the Supreme Leader, as well as several other principlists far behind.
While the reformist camp, which up until a few months ago deliberated over whether or not to run candidates given its experience in the previous elections, managed to close ranks around a single candidate in the home straight, the principlist camp was split. Regardless, Rouhani won more votes than all of the principlist candidates together.
One of the main issues in the elections along with the economy was the nuclear issue and, more specifically, how Iran’s nuclear negotiators conducted themselves in the talks with the West and their responsibility for Iran’s harsh economic and international reality. This discourse continued even after the elections. Rouhani (and Velyati) argued that the obstinate and defiant approach taken by Saeed Jalili (the current Iranian nuclear negotiator) vis-à-vis the West is responsible for Iran’s isolation on the global scene as well as for the crippling sanctions. Rouhani promised to change this policy of defiance and adopt a policy of openness – including initiating an effort to improve relations with the United States – as he embraced during his tenure as head of the nuclear negotiations team in 2003-2004.
Hassan Rouhani, who embodies the essence of the Revolution, may buy the Iranian regime some time in the medium term both at home and abroad. Domestically, he released the pressures of the “Iranian street,” which yearns to change their difficult situation after eight years under Ahmadinejad, and foiled any possibility of a “Persian Spring.” On the foreign affairs front – he will buy Iran time on the global scene and perhaps somewhat loosen the grip of the sanctions by presenting “moderate” Rouhani to the West. We can expect the West to “adopt” Rouhani, the only cleric among the presidential hopefuls, and give Iran (yet again) another opportunity (“last chance”) to resolve the nuclear issue without conflict.
Rouhani has several tough challenges to face:
- On the domestic front ¾ He will need to translate his promises to change the charged environment on the home front and the increasingly militant discourse against the leaders of the Green movement. The electorate expects him to free Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi (calls supporting him were chanted in the streets of Tehran before, during and after the elections), who are currently under house arrest, ease the strict enforcement of the dress code, allow reformist newspapers, magazines and blogs to be published, promote women’s rights, and mainly improve the economy. Resolving economic issues depends on the second dimension that will be a challenge during Rouhani’s presidency ¾
- On the global scene – He will need to continue the nuclear talks with the West, and progress on that front could lead to the gradual lifting of the sanctions; the Syrian issue is another point of contention with the West; the widening rift between the Sunnis and Shiites in the region in light of the aide Shiite Hezbollah is providing to Assad; the Arab Spring and its impact on Iran (Bahrain) and its relations with the West; continued human rights violations in Iran (an issue the West has opted to play down during the nuclear talks).
The IRGC, the Islamic regime’s watchdog, may move to restrict Rouhani’s room to maneuver, and if he deviates from the limits they set, they may send him a threatening letter, as they did to President Khatami at the peak of the reform process he set in motion and which has since died. In the months leading up to the election, they warned against any contact with the US and claimed that renewing diplomatic relations could lead the economic situation to deteriorate, and in any event goes against Iran’s revolutionary discourse.
Rouhani, as opposed to Saeed Jalili, is a diplomat and a sophisticated nuclear negotiator. In several interviews he gave in the past, he made the same statements he did in the debates with Jalili in the run up to the elections. He explained the rationale behind Iran’s decision to suspend uranium enrichment in 2003 (which was criticized by Jalili). According to him, it stemmed from an assessment of the regional and geostrategic circumstances and the time – central of which was the American action in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of its war on terror.
The negotiation tactics used by Rouhani at the time, reduced international pressure on Iran, moved the country away from the Security Council and sanctions, and allowed (as Rouhani admitted) the nation’s scientists to promote its nuclear programs quietly. Rouhani is expected to act to reduce tension with the West and even agree, again, to suspend uranium enrichment to 20% in order to have some of the sanctions lifted. Despite the sanctions, Iran today is in a far better position than it was in 2003, both in terms of its achievements in the field of nuclear technology and in terms of its status and geostrategic influence.
Rouhani will attempt again to leverage the West’s desire for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis and will make the most of his experience as a negotiator. He is supposed to step into power on August 3rd. In the meantime, since being elected, he has already visited the grave of Khomeini, the father of the Revolution, and met with the Supreme Leader to “receive advice and guidance.” Rouhani, who embodies the essence of the Revolution, will continue to promote Iran’s nuclear programs in his own way… In the West… there will evidently be nothing new.