He is the “moderate reformist” that many have dreamt of. No, he is an apparatchik with little desire to seek significant change. Over the past week, these two contradictory analyses have dominated the debate regarding the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Is another analysis possible?
To answer that question we must recall some key points.
To start with, Rouhani did not enter the election as the candidate of any faction. Even after the carnage conducted by the Council of Guardians at the start of the process, the four factions of the establishment still had their respective standard-bearers. Thus, Rouhani was able to cast himself as a trans-factional candidate.
At the same time, his record made him acceptable to all factions.
Among the candidates left in the field he was unique in a number of ways.
He is a mullah and thus acceptable to clerics although he has never worked as a cleric. Thanks to decades of close association with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), he is acceptable to the military that have emerged as a power behind the scenes in Iran. His position as a security official for years also makes him acceptable to the powerful intelligence services that helped wreck Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term. Rouhani is also acceptable to technocrats and managerial elites of the regime. He is a successful businessman and, for years, was chief executive of the IRGC’s biggest conglomerate, granting thousands of lucrative contracts to the private sector.
But Rouhani is also a diplomat with many contacts abroad. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin claim him as friend.
Rouhani owes his election to no one but a combination of circumstances.
As far as Rouhani is concerned, all that is on the positive side.
However, his election also includes negative features. To start with, he has no constituency of his own. Many of those who voted for him did so simply because they did not like the candidates of rival factions. They saw Rouhani as the only alternative to Velayati, Jalili, and Qalibaf who were—perhaps wrongly—believed to be Khamenei’s choices. The protest vote against the Supreme Guide went to Rouhani as the outsider.
To be sure, as president, Rouhani would be able to use the resources at his disposal to build a personal support base. But that takes time and, as Ahmadinejad’s experience has shown, is no easy task.
Rouhani’s election has another negative feature.
Of the seven presidents of the Khomeinist republic, Rouhani has been elected with the lowest share of votes, a whisker above 50 per cent. The average share of the votes for the six previous presidents stands at over 70%, while Khamenei was first elected president with 96% of the vote. Last Friday’s election also showed the second lowest voter turnout in Iranian presidential election history. The turnout in the presidential election four years ago was almost 12% higher. More interestingly, the turnout in major cities was at an all-time low. In Tehran, Rouhani collected 1.2 million votes out of 6.5 million eligible voters. Lack of support in major cities is important if one wishes to see Rouhani introducing a program of reforms desired by urban middle classes.
Rouhani faces another major problem. Because no one is quite sure who he is, many are likely to project their wishes and fantasies onto him and, if he cannot deliver, are likely to turn against him. This is what happened to Muhammad Khatami, a decent man but a poor politician who was swept into the presidency as the anti-establishment candidate before retiring as a vilified character eight years later. Iranians have already posted endless lists of desiderata on the Internet for Rouhani to deliver.
Many want him to release political prisoners on his first day. Others want him to stop the Iranian rial’s rapid meltdown and rein in inflation that has topped 30%. Some think his election spells the end of sanctions imposed by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union.
For their part, the major powers are also dreaming of Rouhani solving the nuclear file with a magic wand. Inflated expectations could derail Rouhani’s presidency before it begins.
No one knows how Rouhani’s presidency might turn out. We have to wait and see whether he can even form a cabinet of his own and ensure control of key ministries such as the Security and Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Interior, and Oil ministries.
I am told that Rouhani is negotiating with Khamenei to begin his presidency with a major symbolic move such as ending the house arrest of former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karroubi. On the international front, he is reportedly seeking permission to devote his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia to ease tension in the region and find a common solution to the Syrian tragedy.
Those who have high hopes for Rouhani would do well to lower their expectations. After all, in the Khomeinist system, the final say goes to the Supreme Guide under Articles 110 and 176 of the constitution. In the past two years, Khamenei has reasserted his powers with greater vigor and is determined to be seen as the sole decision-maker in Iran.
Like all his predecessors as president, Rouhani is bound to clash with the Supreme Guide. What matters is the manner in which that clash takes place.
Fortunately for him, Rouhani has promised almost nothing. The symbol of his campaign—a silver key—was an apt choice. A key opens a door, but we don’t always know what is behind the door it opens.