What will Iran’s new president deliver?

The June 14 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran was welcomed by thousands coming onto the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities.

To say that the outcome of the presidential election in Iran was unexpected is an understatement. It certainly was not the result predicted by most pundits and the public at large did not anticipate Rouhani’s victory. The clerical leadership had played a sophisticated political game. They allowed a range of candidates to stand who were mostly acceptable within the context of their overall strategy, while preventing the pro-reform camp and wider spectrum of progressive opposition from fielding candidates.

Both for those who had refused to participate in the election and those who cast their vote for Hassan Rouhani, the election result represented a clear rejection of the regime’s policies. While the euphoria was in part about the election of Rouhani, it had more to do with the desire of many Iranians for reform. Within the very strict limitations of the electoral system in Iran, Rouhani was the only candidate who appeared to promise reform, hence the shift of support his way in the final days of the campaign.

The shift towards Rouhani was impressive enough for him to secure 51 percent of the vote and the presidency on the first ballot. Commentators had predicted that a run-off with the conservative-backed Saeed Jalili, leading to a second round vote, would be the best that could be hoped for. In the event, Jalili trailed in third, the hardline vote was split and Rouhani squeezed through the middle.

Of course, many were reminded of the 2009 election, with reformist candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi being the most likely winner until the regime stepped in to rig the outcome in favour of incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The outcome of the regime’s actions at that time was a mass outpouring onto the streets of Iran and the growth of the Green Movement in response to the stolen election. Given the level of ongoing opposition since 2009, the regime may well have calculated that a similar imposition would not work a second time. The ongoing threat of intervention from the U.S. and popular dissatisfaction with the regime’s policies due to sanctions, means that the clergy have been reluctant to gamble on imposing their most preferred candidate again.

Rouhani himself has described his win as follows: “This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness, and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper.”

This clearly aims to fuel the notion that he is a genuine candidate of reform, representing the people against the establishment.

However, little is ever as it appears in the world of Iranian politics. With the economy in free-fall and relationships with the West at an all time low over the issues of the nuclear program and economic sanctions, the clergy look to have decided to cut their losses and go with the popular vote. After all, although the six presidential candidates did display varying signs of difference on policy matters, all had been selected with the approval of the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the outcome was always going to be a pro-regime president.

The more hard-line clergy in Iran have also had to accept that the reform movement has made some impact, so the appearance of a limited degree of accommodation may have been regarded as politic. With a directly pro-reform candidate having been forced to stand down in the contest, former presidents Khatemi and Rafsanjani came out in favour of Rouhani during the campaign, even though Khatemi recognised that “Rouhani does not consider himself as belonging to the pro-reform camp.” However, for the people of Iran, the opportunity to prevent an even more hard-line candidate succeeding Ahmadinejad was clearly seen as the short-term priority, even if Rouhani promises little else than the more efficient management of the existing regime.

For the regime itself, there can be little doubt that Rouhani is largely considered to be a safe pair of hands. His CV includes having been Khamenei’s representative and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, a position he maintained even after the electoral coup of 2009.

Rouhani has stated that he will lead Iran towards moderation and détente in the international arena as well as proclaiming the need to increase production and employment. With the existing sanctions in place from the West, the two go hand in hand. Given the wider regional considerations, including current action in Syria and the apparent need of the West to demonize Iran, the extent to which Rouhani can engineer any détente will inevitably be limited. However, this is Rouhani’s main mandate from the regime. Delivering on the lifting of sanctions, heading off the threat of military intervention and improving relations with Iran’s conservative and Arab neighbors is seen by the regime as vital for the long term sustainability of the Islamic Republic in its current form.

Also, the extent to which the ruling clergy will allow any genuine reform is questionable. In any event, there is nothing in either the program or declarations of Rouhani that would suggest that the legalization of free and independent trade unions, the freeing of all political prisoners or greater freedom for women is to be on the agenda any time soon.

The election outcome in Iran may well be read as an unexpected defeat for the more hard-line factions within the establishment. Whether that makes it a vote which will result in genuine reform is much more open to question. There is still time for the voices of the Iranian people to be heard on the streets in coming months. It will be interesting to see if they continue to proclaim Rouhani’s victory so loudly.

CODIR – the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights – and those campaigning for human and democratic rights inside Iran will watch closely to see if Rouhani is at all responsive to popular demands for change. Campaigning on issues of peace, democracy and human rights will continue, however, until all political prisoners are released, executions are ended and the Islamic Republic allows free and democratic trade union activity in Iran.

Photo: Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. Wikimedia Commons


Jane Green
Jane Green

Jane Green is the national campaign officer of the UK-based CODIR, Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights.