During the recent Iranian presidential election Saeed Jalili, the hardliner candidate and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator since 2007, collected approximately 4 million votes, 11.4% of the total ballots. Notably, President-elect Hassan Rouhani defeated Jalili by a margin of greater than 15% in Qom, the purported center of Iranian conservatism and the largest center for Shi’a scholarship in the world.
These results led a group of analysts to argue that Jalili’s votes signified the decline of hardliners. This argument is flawed because there is no basis for comparison from the past elections to reach such conclusion. No formidable candidate in the last 24 years ran on a pure, hard-line conservative platform, including Ahmadinejad.
In 2005 he advocated economic justice and struggle against corruption and “political-economic oligarchy and monopoly.” Those who voted for Ahmadinejad in the runoff, as he was competing against Hashemi Rafsanjani, a member of the old guard, came from all walks of life—not just hardliners. Ahmadinejad ran a populist campaign in order to maximize his votes.
During the 2005 election, the hardliners covertly supported Ahmadinejad. But during the heavily disputed 2009 elections, they supported him overtly because of his staunch anti-American and anti-Israeli stance, as well as his irreconcilable, non-negotiable policies on the nuclear issue during his first term. However, his intense, nationalistic views were constantly at odds with hard-line conservatives.
In the recent presidential elections, the approach that the other three principlist candidates selected for their campaign (even if it was conveniently) was pragmatic and close to the president-elect Hassan Rouhani’s than to those of traditional Hezbollahis’ (hardliners). They all utilized the fixing of the poor economy as central point for their campaign. In fact, Velayati, one of the principlist candidates, attacked Jalili’s approach toward the nuclear issue and discredited him more than moderate Rouhani.
To conclude, Saeed Jalili emerged as the first notable candidate, since Ayatollah Khamenei was elected as the Supreme Leader in 1989, to campaign on a pure Hezbollahi (hardline) ideology. The outcome of this election revealed an important piece of information—that this school of thought has the support of almost 4 million Iranians. But whether this signifies a decline of hardliners cannot be established.
A second group among analysts and policy-makers alike posit that Rouhani’s election will not bear any effect on Iran’s foreign policy. They reason that Iran’s Supreme Leader is the decision maker when it comes to foreign policy.
However, Rouhani took a clear stance with regard to this notion in one of his campaign interview. A reporter argued that as president, Rouhani would not be in a position to effect any changes to Iran’s foreign policy. He responded, “You say that the president and his government do not have any say in foreign policy and [only] the Supreme Leader does, but it’s not like that.”
Rouhani then asked the reporter to explain the genesis of varying foreign policies during the presidencies of Rafsanjani (centrist with caution), Khatami (reformist, accommodating) and Ahmadinejad (non-compromising and belligerent) if they could not influence Iran’s foreign policy. He said, “The leader was this leader [during all three presidents].” So if presidents are a non-factor, how might one explain differing foreign policies from one president to the next?
Therein lies a point that is crucial to understanding Iran’s foreign policy. The indisputable fact that the Supreme Leader is Iran’s most powerful figure in Iranian politics does not equate to his immunity from the impact of different forces operating in a complex system. In other words, the Supreme Leader holds the last word on major foreign policy decisions but he must constantly balance the pressure between competing forces.
The most recent election also stood as a referendum between two approaches on Iran’s nuclear issue and on a broader scale, Iran’s foreign policy. Due to the economic hardships for which sanctions are most certainly responsible, at least in part, foreign policy and the nuclear issue appeared at the heart of Iran’s presidential debates. Jalili rejected Rouhani’s “trust-building” and “constructive interaction” approach during his campaign and instead advocated a “threat-thwarting” establishment of foreign policy.
Undoubtedly, conflicting relations between Iran and the US are at the forefront of problems that Rouhani must address. The White House issued a statement congratulating the Iranian people for their courage and offered to hold direct talks with Iran. The Congress, however, continues its stale, unyielding approach that completely ignores the voice of Iran’s people who demanded change in both domestic and foreign policy.
After a June 18 hearing before the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, the chair of the subcommittee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was asked if she was convinced by the experts’ advice to give Rouhani some time to change Iran’s foreign policy. She replied, “Not at all. We need to continue our sanctions policy and help our allies to see the light that a nuclear Iran will destroy the United States and will destroy Israel.”
In yet another development, all but one member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter to President Obama on July 1st calling for him to increase the pressure on Iran. A translated version of the letter proliferated through email across Iran. People were stunned by the fact that Congress remained unwilling to cede any respite to Rouhani for preparation of the grounds for earnest, reconciliatory moves.
During Rouhani’s sixteen-year career as Secretary of the National Security Council, he demonstrated notable skills in building bridges between Iran, its neighbors and the West. Laying the groundwork for direct talks with the US presents a challenging task, but this change in Iran’s leadership may represent one final opportunity to reign in the perilous conflict between Iran and the US before it spirals beyond control.
Congress’s approach will not force Iran’s acquiescence to pressure but it will open the door for hardliners to question the sincerity of the United States, justifying their stance and most likely quashing Rouhani’s opportunity to act as a bridge-builder between the two states. If Rouhani’s bridge is not built between his own road and the one leading directly to the White House, there will not be a diplomatic, peaceful resolution.