Iran: What Does Rouhani Bring to the Table?

03 Jul, 2013    ·   4020

Somya Chhabra on whether he will be able to garner domestic consensus to change the economy and polity

Somya Chhabra
Somya Chhabra
Research Intern

Hassan Rouhani’s election as the seventh president of Iran amongst a host of five other conservative candidates, many of them close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has made the 2013 Presidential elections a landmark. Not only has a moderate candidate defeated the hard-liners, the election process has been hailed as genuine and relatively democratic. In fact, the Supreme Leader himself said before the election that even those who do not support the Islamic Regime of Iran must vote. Rouhani’s win raises a number of pivotal questions: What makes Rouhani best suited to counter the challenges faced by Iran? What is the future of Iran’s nuclear programme under him? Will he be able to garner the domestic consensus needed to bring about a change in Iran’s economy and polity?

The ‘Diplomat Sheikh’
As a moderate, Rouhani campaigned under the rhetoric of reform, a sentiment that has resonated with the people’s desire for a move away from the status quo. With his focus on Iran’s fragile domestic economic and social condition, he has identified flourishing economy, pragmatic politics and a dynamic culture as the three pillars of the country which demand special focus.

Domestically, Iran’s frail economy will pose the greatest threat which is hitting the people hard. In the light of the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran by the West, inflation has peaked, currency has fallen and unemployment has aggravated. Rouhani has stated that the development and implementation of short and medium term plans to overcome the economic downturn, as well as job creation, will remain the top priority for his government. Importance has also been given to issues of administrative and financial corruption, which needs to be eradicated in order to attract private sector and foreign investments. Rouhani is also the most likely candidate who could improve media conditions and provide them with greater freedom.

Rouhani is also keen on maintaining regional stability in the Middle East and friendly relations with all neighbors. This is necessary as Iran is a major and the biggest power in the region. The President’s support for the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, friendly relations with Lebanon and Palestine as well as the highlighting of the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia are examples of how regional dynamics are being prioritized over relations with the West.

On the international front, Rouhani is a known figure and is someone the west is open to negotiating with. As the Chief Nuclear Negotiator of Iran from 2003-2005, Rouhani displayed his diplomatic skills and his technocratic approach. His imposition of a moratorium on the Uranium Enrichment process in Iran can be seen as an example of his inclination towards compromise and cooperation. He has pledged the return of the nuclear issue, which was referred to the United Nations Security Council, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and under his presidency, there are hopes of mutually benefitting negotiations with the P5+1. He has also guaranteed more transparency into its nuclear activities whilst dealing with the IAEA. Due to this, he is considered the most likely candidate who can dissolve Iran’s nuclear deadlock and loosen the sanctions imposed.

However, in the same breath, Rouhani has also made it clear that anything posing an existential threat to Iran will be countered. He has ruled out any halt to the nuclear activity in Iran and is an ardent supporter of the peaceful nuclear energy programme. Thus, even though talks between Iran and the West are likely to be renewed, Iran is determined on strengthening its nuclear capabilities. Such a position may hamper the prospects of tranquility with the West, despite the optimism shown by the U.S. and the European Union. Therefore, Rouhani’s success as a President will, then, depend on the extent of confidence building between Iran and the West in avenues other than nuclear.

The Challenge of Consensus-Building
The political system of Iran consists of a number of power centres, which are, more often than not, unwilling to reconcile. In his book ‘National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy’, Rouhani has stated that there exists an incoherent decision-making process and a general lack of consensus on diplomacy and foreign policy in Iran. In such a splintered polity and an authoritarian regime, it will be an onerous task for him to build a domestic consensus which can end Iran’s isolation and give a kick start to its economy.

However, Rouhani has made it clear that he will appoint ministers from across the political spectrum on the basis of their merit. Such a positionhas emphasized moderation, as opposed to the extremist approach adopted by the former President Ahmadinejad, which has pushed Iran to the position of a pariah state. As a centrist leader, he can, to some extent, bridge the gap between the supreme leader and the reformist group, increasing the country’s bargaining power. Needless to say, the changes will be slow-paced and incremental and the world at large must be patient in its dealing with Rouhani.