It was US president Franklin Roosevelt who started the idea that a leader puts his mark on things within the first hundred days of his stewardship.
Regardless of how leaders emerge, some thanks to accidents of birth, others via military coup, and still others through elections—genuine or otherwise—history confirms Roosevelt’s observation.
As a Western-educated politician, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is certain to have heard of the Rooseveltian shibboleth. Thus, he would know that tomorrow, when he is inaugurated, marks the start of his first 100 days.
Always trying to be different, the French label the first hundred days a “political honeymoon.” They, too, insist that the position of a new leader is at strongest in the early stages of his reign. As prime minister for only a few months, Pierre Mendès France did more than all the prime ministers of the Fourth Republic combined. He set everything in motion during his “political honeymoon.”
To be sure, comparing Rouhani to Roosevelt or Mendès France is problematic if only because the Islamic Republic cannot be regarded as a democracy by any stretch of the imagination. There is also the fact that, in the Khomeinist system, the president is the first officer rather than the captain, to use marine terminology.
Nevertheless, Rouhani could do a great deal before his first hundred days—his “political honeymoon”—is over.
It is not up to us to tell Rouhani what he should or could do in his “political honeymoon.” However, his election program includes some useful ideas. He could start by trying to deliver on some of his election promises, including the release of political prisoners, a curbing of spiraling inflation, and moderating the language of Iran’s diplomacy. He needs to show that something important is beginning to change. Any impression of business as usual would give his presidency the kiss of death in no time.
For a variety of reasons, including the structural defects of the Khomeinist political system, all of the Islamic Republic’s six previous presidents ended their terms as failures. And in every case, the contours of their failure took shape within the first hundred days.
The first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, was a dead duck within 20 days as he hesitated to confront the mullahs, then still in a position of weakness. Worse still, he almost wrecked the economy as the nation was at war, with a series of nationalizations just to impress the dogmatic left.
His successor as president, Muhammad-Ali Rajaei, didn’t even make it to 100 days, as he was blown up after 27 days.
The third president was Ali Khamenei, the current supreme guide. He spent his “political honeymoon” in spiritual seclusion, presumably reading poetry, ending up as a ghost while the ambitious Khomeini continued to monopolize the headlines. It was to take Khamenei twenty years to emerge from his ghosthood and be taken seriously as a political player.
The fate of the fourth president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was also sealed within his first hundred days, as people saw his finger in one cookie jar after another. Thanks to a mixture of bullying and clientelism, he managed to hang on for eight years. But the impression he had created during his “political honeymoon” endured. Two decades later, when he suffered the humiliation of being declared “unfit” to stand for election, most people simply yawned.
Muhammad Khatami, the fifth president, started his career on a wave of optimism unprecedented since the seizure of power by the mullahs in 1979. In his first hundred days, he enjoyed an authority that none of his predecessors had secured. And yet he too failed to put his mark on Iranian politics within his “political honeymoon.”
The failure of the sixth president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was even more dramatic. His election, made possible by the crushing defeat of Rafsanjani, and perhaps “arranged” by powers-that-be, had created wild hopes about a quick end to political domination by mullahs and the return of Iran as a normal nation-state. Ahmadinejad squandered those precious days by casting himself as tourist, travelling in the provinces and spending time in New York to deny the Holocaust and drop hints about his contacts with the “Hidden Imam.”
Rouhani starts his presidency with a number of advantages. Although he won with the smallest majority among all the seven presidents of the Islamic Republic, he enjoys the advantage of being a mullah and a civil servant at the same time. The political segment of the clergy are reassured by his presence, regarding him as one of them. At the same time, civil servants, technocrats and business circles linked to the government see him as someone who understands their concerns. Because he was fairly unknown before his election, Rouhani does not have a popular base of his own. Amazingly, in a country where mullahs provoke intense hared from vast segments of society, almost nobody hates Rouhani.
Rouhani has another advantage. He has a large circle of friends in the West. It is not only former British foreign secretary Jack Straw who has started acting as a one-man PR team for Rouhani. Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin and former European Union foreign policy Tsar Javier Solana have also been singing Rouhani’s praises. In the United States, Rouhani’s election has been welcomed by former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski and former State Department number two Thomas Pickering. Over 130 US Congressmen have written to President Barack Obama asking him to postpone new sanctions to help Rouhani in his first hundred days.
Rouhani’s selection has also received a cautious welcome in Arab countries that hope he will try to curb Khamenei’s adventurist ambitions. Even in Israel, several editorials have welcomed Rouhani’s election and taken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to task for alleged failure to revise policy on Iran.
Well, we would assess Rouhani’s performance once his “political honeymoon” is over. However, his every step, starting with the composition of his Cabinet, would determine the step that follows. For Rouhani, the clock begins ticking today.