Originally Published 2013-06-19 00:00:00 Published on Jun 19, 2013
The challenge for Iran's President-elect Dr. Hassan Rouhani lies in not only appeasing the highest echelons of country's clergy, but also securing results for an economy that is on the brink of collapse.
Will Rouhani be able to change the game?
The election of former nuclear negotiator Dr. Hassan Rouhani as the 11th President of Iran has surprised many. President-elect Rouhani and Mohammed Reza Aref were the only moderates who withstood the ’arbitrary’ vetting procedure of presidential candidates. Rouhani is also the only cleric who participated in the electoral race. Of the 686 candidates registered, the all powerful Guardian Council approved only 8. Almost reminiscent of the allegedly fraudulent elections of 2009, the council was pre-emptively cautious in barring potentially defiant candidates, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Chief of Staff Esfandiar Mashaie.

The 2009 presidential elections were riddled with charges of mass vote rigging, media restrictions and a brutal crackdown on protest movements. Subsequently, reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who challenged Ahmedinejad’s incumbent win and initiated the ’Green Movement’, was put under house arrest and continues to remain so. Keeping this in mind, it seemed likely that power would be centred around the ideologically driven loyalists of Ayatollah Khamenei.

Rouhani’s landslide win has, nevertheless, challenged a widely held perception that surrounded the much-awaited elections. Most analysts, media houses and governments dismissed the elections as an eye-wash. Apart from the dichotomous constitution wherein the Supreme Leader rules on the basis of velayat-e-faqih, of the six remaining presidential candidates it was hard to point out any one not aligned with KhameneiI . The concept of velayat-e-faqih, essentially institutionalises the power of the Supreme Leader by giving him constitutional jurisdiction over all matters of supreme national interest. Thereby, he super-cedes the authority of the President.

This is not surprising given that Khamenei 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 GuardsII . The suppression of the reform movement, as seen in 2009 Presidential elections, had cast a shadow over the upcoming elections.

Even though popular reformist candidates like Rafsanjani, Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi were prohibited from contesting, the reformists left no stone unturned in solidifying their bloc. Former President Khatami endorsed the withdrawal of prime reformist candidate, Mohammed Reza Aref, and announced support for RouhaniIII .

The Guardian Council’s bias against reformist candidates has been brought up in the past by infighting within the Khamenei family. Hadi Khamenei, the Ayatollah’s younger brother and former adviser to reformist President Khatami, challenged the council as going against the grain of Iranian democracy.

There is a second school of thought that has coalesced around the three categories of political factionalism that have emerged since Khomeini’s death in 1989 - The hard-line conservatives, the moderates who rose to prominence under Rafsanjani and the reformists for whom Mohammad Khatami is the leading figure. Accordingly, the political tendencies of these factions will determine Iran’s political and economic course IV.

The voter base, therefore, could be assumed to have split along those steadfastly loyal to the orthodox and strongly conservative character of the regime and those suffering as a result of high inflation and unemployment. The latter is more or less a by-product of crippling western sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear programmeV . Even though the Supreme Leader retains the right to steer the security and foreign policy, including nuclear diplomacy, the course of Iran’s economic policy is under the President’s jurisdictionVI .

Economic and Foreign policy

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 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, 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, he has pledged greater transparency in the country’s nuclear programmeVII .

During his 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. Rouhani now holds out the promise of moderation in his policies, including balancing Iran’s interests with greater cooperation with other countries. Rouhani’s greatest strength, therefore, lies in his ’centrism’VIII that will allow him to build alliancesIX , with the reformist camp as well as in securing cautious support of the conservatives. On the other hand, Rouhani’s overtly conciliatory approach towards the conservatives could also cost him his popular support base. As opposed to his conservative compatriots, Rouhani will be unable to appease the public and 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 of 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 program could not shake his support base. According to Denise Ajiri, founder of U.S. 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’X .

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 predominantly anti-Islamic and foiled their implementationXI . Contrary to conservatives, Pragmatists’ policies believe that too much emphasis on social justice negates the effects of judicious economic planningXII . Even though the pragmatists’ policies showed significant promise in institutionalising a progressive polity, they only left behind a legacy of economic stagnancy and social repression.

’Conservative obstructionism’XIII 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, their daunting mandate failed to develop into a viable oppositional force to the conservative power base.

Therefore it was predicted that Iran’s populace would eventually reconcile with the institutional power of conservatives, with Saeed Jalili at the fore-front of this speculation.

However, the fact that 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, such as Ayatollah Mesbah YazdiXIV , speaks of the volume of public desire for reform.

In voting a moderate President, Iran has demonstrated its desire for overcoming its continued political isolation, marked by significant economic deterioration and disappearing democratic accountability. What remains to be seen is whether or not 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.


I.    Safiya Ansari, ’Iran Elections 2013: Does the President even matter’, June 11, 2013 (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2013/06/11/Iran-elections-2013-Does-the-president-even-matter-.html)

II.    Ray Takyeh,’Hidden Iran-Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic’,Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006

III.    Zvi Bar’el, ’Iranians are waiting for Khamenei’s endorsement’, June 10, 2013 (http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/iranians-are-waiting-for-khamenei-s-endorsement.premium-1.528915)

IV.    Ray Takyeh,’Hidden Iran -Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic’,Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006

V.    Najmeh Bozorgmehr, June 7, 2013 (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/be0f28f8-cf8f-11e2-be7b-00144feab7de.html#axzz2VuN51FJD)

VI.    Jon Hemming,’Nuclear negotiator Jalili edges ahead in Iranian election race’,June 12, 2013 (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/12/us-iran-election-jalili-idUSBRE95B07N20130612)

VII.    ’Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani pledges path of moderation’, June 17, 2013 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/17/iran-hassan-rouhani-path-moderation)

VIII.    Mark Dubowitz,’Why you shouldn’t get too excited about Rouhani’,June 17, 2013 (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/why-you-shouldnt-get-too-excited-about-rouhani/276912/)

IX.    Seyed Mohammed Marandi,Flynt Leverett,Hillary Mann,’Rouhani won the Iranian election.Get over it’,June 16, 2013 (http://m.aljazeera.com/story/201361681527394374)

X.    EmanEl-Shenawi,’Goodbye Ahmedinejad’,June 13, 2013 (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/special-reports/iran-elections-2013/2013/06/13/Ahmadinejad-legacy-in-Iran-Economic-ruins-and-diplomatic-gaffes-.html)

XI.    Ray Takyeh,’Hidden Iran-Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic’,Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006

XII.    Ibid

XIII.    Ibid

XIV.    Dr. Majid Rafizadeh,’Iran elections 2013: After Ahmedinejad, who will be next President’,June 12, 2013 (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/special-reports/iran-elections-2013/2013/06/12/Iran-elections-2013-Who-will-be-the-next-president-.html)

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