Originally Published 2013-07-01 00:00:00 Published on Jul 01, 2013
In voting for a moderate President, Iranians have demonstrated their desire to overcome continued political isolation, marked by significant economic deterioration and disappearing democratic accountability. Can Mr. Rouhani overcome challenges and deliver?
Iranian voters' hope on Rouhani
The election of former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani as the 11th Iranian President has surprised many. President-elect Rouhani and Mohammed Reza Aref were the only moderates who withstood 'arbitrary' vetting procedure of presidential candidates. Mr Rouhani is also the only cleric who participated in the electoral race. Of the 686 candidates registered, the all-powerful Guardian Council approved only eight. Reminiscent of the allegedly fraudulent elections of 2009, Iran was pre-emptively cautious in barring potentially defiant candidates such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Chief of Staff Esfandiar Mashaie.

Anyway, a dichotomous Constitution lets the Supreme Leader rule on the basis of velayat-e-faqih which gives him jurisdiction over all matters of national interest and allows him to supercede the authority of the President. Also, of the six remaining presidential candidates it was hard to point out any one not aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei. This is not surprising given that the Supreme Leader and his conservative supporters have ensured political hegemony by retaining control of Iran's powerful non-elected institutions including the Guardian Council, the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards. Keeping all of this in mind, it seemed likely that power would be centred around the ideologically-driven loyalists of Ayatollah Khamenei. But that perception has been challenged by Mr Rouhani's landslide win which was made possible because even though popular reformist candidates were prohibited from contesting, they left no stone unturned in solidifying their bloc.

Essentially, three categories of political factionalism have emerged since Ruhollah Khomeini's death in 1989 - the hard-line conservatives, the moderates who rose to prominence under Mr Rafsanjani and the reformists for whom Mohammad Khatami is the leading figure. Accordingly, the political tendencies of these factions determine Iran's political and economic course.

The voter base therefore, may be assumed to have split along those loyal to the orthodox and conservative regime and those suffering as a result of high inflation and unemployment. The latter is a by-product of crippling Western sanctions on Tehran's nuclear programme. Even though the Supreme Leader retains the right to steer the security and foreign policy, including nuclear diplomacy, Iran's economic policy is under the President's jurisdiction.

It is critical that the new President introduces sustainable economic reforms to deal with the legacy of severe economic mismanagement under the Ahmedinejad regime. A dominant feature of Mr Rouhani's election campaign has been an economic plan that addresses inflation, unemployment and the effects of sanctions. Given that these issues cannot be separated from the nuclear stalemate, Mr Rouhani probably offers the best chance for change in relations with the West. Even though he rejects the option of halting Tehran's uranium enrichment plan, he has pledged greater transparency in the country's nuclear programme.

During Mr Rouhani's tenure as a nuclear negotiator, Tehran suspended nuclear enrichment for two years from 2003 to 2005, but was unable to obtain any relief in sanctions from the West. Mr Rouhani now holds out the promise of moderation in his policies. His greatest strength therefore, lies in his 'centris' that will allow him to build alliances, with the reformist camp as well as in securing cautious support of the conservatives. On the other hand, Mr Rouhani's overtly conciliatory approach towards the conservatives could also cost him his popular support base. Also, unlike his conservative colleagues, Mr Rouhani will not be able to appease his reformist supporters merely with rhetoric.

Hard-liners like nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, have always appealed to nationalist sentiment and mobilised support by conflating increasing political isolation with the rhetoric of victimisation. President Ahmedinejad's near decade-long rule represents the priorities of Iran's burgeoning class of conservatives. Where nuclear enrichment activities quadrupled and oil revenues halved due to sanctions, even a poorly implemented economic reforms programme could not shake the President's support base. According to Ms Denise Ajiri, founder of US-based Iran Election Watch: "Looking back at Ahmedinejad's eight years, his Government's ongoing nuclear talks with global powers is also seen by his supports as a sign of success. They believe Ahmedinejad did not give up on Iran's nuclear rights".

In comparison, former President Rafsanjani's rule was a pragmatic reformist effort, which suspended Iran's centralised control between political accommodation and economic necessities. However, the 'Era of Reconstruction' succumbed to the fundamental power of hard-liners who viewed certain reform measures as being anti-Islamic. Contrary to conservatives, pragmatists' policies believe that too much emphasis on social justice negates the effects of judicious economic planning. Even though the pragmatists' promised to institutionalise a progressive polity, they only left behind a legacy of economic stagnancy and social repression.

'Conservative obstructionism' also left its mark on President Khatami's reformist rule. The reformists' ideology encompasses a lofty democratic rhetoric that seeks to undermine the divine autocracy the Ayatollah legitimises. However, the reformists' daunting mandate failed to develop into a viable opposition to conservative power.

Therefore, it was predicted that Iran's populace would eventually reconcile with the institutional power of conservatives, with Mr Jalili at the forefront of this speculation. However, the fact that Mr Jalili could not secure sufficient public support despite endorsement from a powerful coalition of conservative clerics, Revolutionary Guard commanders, traditionalists, and high-ranking Shiite Muslim clerics speaks of the volume of public desire for reform.

In voting for a moderate President, Iran has demonstrated its desire to overcome its continued political isolation, marked by significant economic deterioration and disappearing democratic accountability. What remains to be seen is whether or not Mr Rouhani will successfully trump the discordant nature of political factionalism in Iran, and champion his moderate and conciliatory approach to foreign and domestic policies. The challenge for him lies in not only appeasing the highest echelons of Iranian clergy, but also securing results for an economy on the brink of collapse.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, July 1, 2013

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