A vote for change in Iran

A new moderate president should improve relations with the West, but substantial change will take longer. Published in MEED, 20 June 2013

The victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election on 14 June came as a surprise to many onlookers. The fact he won with a clear majority in the first round was even more of a shock. It had been widely assumed, both inside and outside Iran, that the regime would ensure a more conservative candidate prevailed.

His victory has been welcomed cautiously by Western leaders including US President Barack Obama, who said he was looking for a “more serious, substantive” relationship with Tehran. But the ability of Rouhani to effect meaningful change is far from certain.

Although Rouhani has a popular mandate, the president is still subservient to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who retains control over both foreign policy and the country’s nuclear programme. Without any change in these areas, the prospects for domestic reforms will also be severely constrained.

Delivering on promises

Even so, the result of the election at least opens up the possibility of compromise on the international stage in a way that had become unimaginable under outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That, in turn, could create some space to deal with the serious economic issues that need to be faced at home.

Three days after his election, Rouhani held his first press conference and said his administration would “deliver on its promises of saving the economy, reviving ethics and interacting constructively with the world through a moderate policy”.

He also promised more transparency over the country’s nuclear programme. “I believe that mutual trust and greater transparency within the framework of international rules and regulations are solutions to put an end to sanctions,” he said.

During the campaign itself, Rouhani had also criticised the overbearing security apparatus of the state and called for the release of political prisoners. Taken as a whole, his comments during and since the election offer some grounds for optimism about the direction his presidency will take, but translating words into actions is always a tough task.

Internationally, the key challenge is clearly the nuclear programme, although the war in Syria in which one of Tehran’s few regional allies, President Bashar al-Assad, is fighting for survival, is also a serious cause for concern in Tehran.

The expectation among some observers is that Rouhani will adopt a more conciliatory approach than Ahmadinejad, even if substantive changes in policy are more elusive.

“We saw during the Ahmadinejad years that Iran was not very good at finding diplomatic solutions to regional crises,” says Arshin Adid-Moghaddam, a reader in comparative politics and international relations at the School of Oriental & African Studies in London. “The administration preferred to create facts on the ground. I think with Rouhani this will change. Rouhani is likely to hark back to a dual-track approach, creating facts on the ground on the one side, but also emphasising diplomacy. We’ll see a move away from the rather venomous rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad years towards the language of reconciliation and dialogue.”

Building bridges

That does not mean Iran will turn away from its allies in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria, but it does mean there could be a greater willingness to build bridges with other regional and international powers, including the GCC states and the EU and, in the longer term, the US.

“Rouhani is a moderate, he is pragmatic, he is a technocrat,” says Shahram Chubin, a senior associate in the nuclear programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He is a moderate internationalist with a genuine interest in the expansion of [international] ties, because he believes Iran’s revolutionary system will only work with better engagement with the international community.”

The problem in all of this is that a mix of more nuanced diplomacy and a softening of rhetoric will not be enough on their own to end the sanctions regimes. The US and others will require more concrete signs of change before they will be willing to withdraw any of the measures they have imposed. So far, there has been no sign that Khamenei is willing to countenance such a shift.

In that context, Rouhani’s comments at his press conference on 17 June look well judged. He said his first aim was to ensure no more sanctions were imposed and his second aim was to get the existing ones gradually removed. Initially at least, his best hope is probably to focus on persuading the EU, Japan, South Korea and others to reduce their sanctions, rather than attempting to have the US or UN sanctions scaled back.

On the domestic front, Rouhani should also be able to breathe some fresh life into the political arena. Ahmadinejad’s relationship with both Khamenei and the Majlis (parliament) soured badly during his second term. As a result, some of his most important policies were blocked or reversed by parliament, such as the replacement of food and fuel subsidies with direct payments to the poor in an effort to reduce the burden on the state’s budget.

But in common with the other candidates, Rouhani had little to say during the campaign about how he might tackle the country’s economic woes. Inflation is high, as is unemployment, and the rial has been plummeting in value over the past year. It is not impossible for Iran to trade with the outside world, but it is increasingly difficult.

For as long as sanctions are in place, many of these problems are likely to persist, no matter what Rouhani does. So the most significant change he could make in the short term is likely to be in other areas, such as rolling back suppression of dissent and the excesses of state intrusion into Iranians’ lives. A vital gauge of his ability to push  hrough such an agenda will be whether leaders of the 2009 Green movement, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, are released from house arrest.

Rouhani may have been the most moderate of the five candidates still in the race on voting day, but he is just as much an establishment figure, with roles in some of the key bodies of state. He was previously the country’s chief nuclear negotiator and currently represents Khamenei in the Supreme National Security Council. He is also a member of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts.

Even so, perhaps the greatest sign of the potential for change in Iran is that Rouhani was elected at all. In the build-up to the campaign, it was widely assumed that, while some relative moderates were being allowed to run, the eventual victor would be a conservative candidate favoured by Khamenei, such as Saeed Jalili, the current chief nuclear negotiator.

But as the lone moderate in the race, Rouhani was able to successfully pull together the votes of more reform-minded Iranians, while his four opponents splintered the conservative vote between them. As a result, Rouhani attracted 18,613,329 of the 36,704,156 votes cast, just over the 50 per cent required to avoid a run-off election on 21 June.

His total was three times greater than his nearest opponent, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who attracted just over 6 million votes. Jalili, who had performed very poorly in the televised debates during the campaign, came a distant third, with just over 4 million votes, or about 11 per cent of the total. Interestingly, Rouhani appeared to have done better outside the big cities, suggesting the appetite for change is relatively widespread around the country.

The next step

For the regime itself, perhaps of most importance was not the identity of the winner, but having an election with a high turnout and a peaceful outcome. Voter turnout was 72.7 per cent, according to officials from the Interior Ministry, and there was no repeat of the violence that flared up after the 2009 election, when millions took to the street to protest the result. If that had happened again, it would have only served to undermine the credibility of the Islamic Republic itself.

That at least shows pragmatism can overcome other issues. Ultimately, however, all this will mean very little unless there is movement on the nuclear issue. The election results certainly suggest the Iranian people would like the country to start moving in a different direction and the onus is now on Rouhani to deliver on the optimism his victory has engendered. “A president can make a difference if the president is different and this one I think is,” says Chubin.