The surprise landside victory of Iranian moderate Hassan Rouhani restored the faith of many Iranians in their electoral system, but it also spoke to disillusion across the political spectrum with the country's isolated status and stagnant economy.
Abolghasem Bayyenat, last updated: July 01, 2013
Foreign Policy In Focus
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 win was a major gain for the moderate and reformist political groups in Iran—and consequently a major loss for the conservative groups—its implications are far greater than a simple adjustment in the balance of power in Iran’s domestic politics.
Prior to the election, a sizable portion of Iran’s population had lost faith in the integrity and fairness of Iran’s elections, especially since the disputed presidential vote of 2009. Rouhani’s first-round victory against conservative, government-favored presidential candidates helped restore public trust in the electoral system and promote national reconciliation and cohesion. Although 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 of its citizens.
This has increased the security of the Iranian political system at large. 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 Iran's leaders. This produced an unusually paranoid system of governance and a highly politicized domestic climate during much of the last four years. Yet the healthy and undisputed nature of Iran’s recent presidential election, along with high voter turnout, have contributed to a greater sense of security. This in turn may translate into improved political tolerance at home and increased self-confidence abroad.
Of course, the direction of Iran’s foreign policy in the coming years remains to be determined. It will be a function of the preferences of current political elites, who themselves act within domestic and external constraints. Iran’s president-elect is a relatively moderate and pro-reform politician who has promised “constructive engagement” with the outside world and a more rational and calculated foreign policy.
Yet given the fragmented nature of Iran’s political system, a change in president alone is unlikely to shepherd substantial changes either domestically or internationally. "Even under the simultaneous control of the executive and the legislature by the reformists in the late 1990s and early 2000s," as I recently noted for Iran Diplomacy Watch, "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.”
One tempting way to predict Rouhani's ability to affect change is to recall the performance of former president Mohammad Khatami, whose surprise landslide victory in the 1997 presidential election led 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, conservative Iranian authorities have by now gained practical experience in containing the power of reformist-controlled executive and legislative branches. That is why, unlike Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997, which sent panic through the ranks of conservative Iranian political circles, Rouhani’s electoral victory has not created any noticeable fears among the conservatives. After all, his rise to executive power is not viewed as threatening to the foundations of the Islamic political system.
Given Rouhani’s centrist positions and his trusted relationship with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Rouhani is expected to face less resistance from conservative circles as he tries to realize his electoral promises. That contrasts strongly with Khatami’s tenure, which was punctuated by numerous domestic political crises.
The second major difference is that Khatami largely ran his campaign on the promise of a better environment for civil and political liberties at home and normalization of Iran’s relations abroad. Running against the backdrop of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s two-term presidency, which was primarily devoted to promoting economic development and reconstruction, Khatami presented a narrative with a far less prominent vision for efficient economic management. Khatami instead emphasized that political development should be pursued in tandem with economic development.
The special domestic and international circumstances facing Iran today have produced different priorities for the Iranian leadership than in the late 1990s. This explains why Rouhani, like most of his conservative rivals, emphasized plans for addressing the dire economic situation at home through more efficient economic management and better relations with the outside world. It also explains why most presidential candidates were critical of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, including his handling of the nuclear issue. They also attacked Saeed Jalili, a government-favored conservative presidential candidate, in his role as chief nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad, for being incompetent and unproductive.
This is a major reason why Rouhani is expected to face fewer challenges than Khatami from conservative circles in realizing his plans. After all, when it comes to dissatisfaction with the status quo, Rouhani and his competitors were more or less on the same page.
Rouhani's victory thus reflects the public perception that he will be better poised than his conservative rivals to address Iran's present challenges.
Perhaps no words better capture this sentiment than the opening lines of an editorial by a news site affiliated with the former Revolutionary Guards commander—and losing independent presidential candidate—Mohsen Rezaee. Published right after Iran’s election results were announced, the editorialread: “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.”
What the Future May Hold
Rouhani’s electoral victory—and the general consensus among Iranian political elites today on the need to address Iran’s economic problems and to pursue a more cautious foreign policy—should not be understood to mean that Iran will be more willing to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.
What it does signify is that Iran is now more determined to address Western concerns in return for a lifting of Western economic sanctions and recognition of Iran's right to peaceful nuclear enrichment. 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.
Randy Scheunemann is a well-connected Washington lobbyist and neoconservative activist. A former director of the Project for the New American Century, Scheunemann is also well known as the foreign policy adviser charged with counseling the neophyte Sarah Palin for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Scheunemann’s influence on Palin resurfaced in 2014 when Palin claimed to have predicted back in 2008 that Russia would invade Ukraine if then-Sen. Obama were elected president. “Do you think those were actually [Palin’s] own thoughts,” wondered one critic, “or ones crafted by John McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, a neocon who was both a paid lobbyist for Georgia and supporter of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi charlatan who helped Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney gull the American people into a misbegotten war?”
Ruth Wedgwood, a SAIS professor and vice chair of the neoconservative Freedom House, is a staunch defender of the "war on terror” who has supported controversial policies that encroach on civil liberties and human rights, including military tribunals, indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, and the PATRIOT Act. Wedgwood has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons and expressed support for the MEK, a controversial Iranian dissident group long considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and likened by its critics to a cult.
Dennis Ross, a controversial former diplomat who served in the Obama administration before retreating to a “pro-Israel” think tank, is a vocal Democratic advocate of leveraging the threat of war to exact concessions from Iran over its nuclear program. Recently, Ross linked the issue to the crisis in Ukraine, arguing that the Obama administration should retaliate against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine in order to placate Israel and Saudi Arabia—foes of Iran who, according to Ross, “believe that the U.S. is increasingly reluctant to act in the face of regional challenges”—even if it means ending Russian cooperation in international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Amoretta Hoeber is a military consultant and a former Reagan defense official who has opposed international agreements to ban chemical weapons. She currently heads AMH Consulting, a Maryland-based firm that advises companies seeking military contracts. During the Iraq War, Hoeber lent credence to the false accusation that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical weapons—without mentioning that her own firm had secured a contract to remove them.
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol seems nostalgic for the Cold War. During a recent appearance on ABC, he lamented that President Obama didn’t seem to show proper reverence for that “war” when he argued that Syria and Ukraine are not pieces on a “Cold War chessboard.” Kristol said, "So, look; it's nice for President Obama to say it's not a Cold War chessboard. I don't know why he says that with some disdain. That was not an ignoble thing for us to play on that chessboard for 45 years. We ended up winning that Cold War." He added, "And I do think Putin thinks he's playing chess. He thinks he's playing even a rougher game than chess and we have to be able to match it.”
For media inquiries,
or call 202-234-9382.
March, 04 2014
As the political window for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine closes, polls show surprising U.S. support for the "one-state" option.
March, 04 2014
A familiar cast of neoconservatives is blaming Russia's intervention in Ukraine on the Obama administration.
March, 04 2014
In the absence of a political settlement in Kiev, Crimea could remain under Russian control indefinitely.
March, 02 2014
Thwarted in its attempt to push new Iran sanctions through Congress, AIPAC is now banking on getting bipartisan support for a watered-down letter about Iran's nuclear enrichment capabilities.
February, 26 2014
Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel's recent proposal to cut the size of the regular Army while increasing funding for Special Forces in many ways reflects the approach of Donald Rumsfeld, who embraced a similar vision prior to the Iraq War.
February, 25 2014
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains vulnerable, but a fractured armed opposition and polarized geopolitics mean that he's unlikely to lose his grip on power in the immediate future.
February, 22 2014
The Obama administration has suggested that it will press Iran on halting its ballistic missile program, adopting a key Israeli demand that Iran may consider a deal breaker in talks over its nuclear enrichment program.