Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, begins his term in office amid cautious optimism all around. The optimism is due to Rouhani’s personality, which defines him as a pragmatic leader who understands the real world. The caution comes from to the complexity of the Iranian political system and the delicate interplay between the president, directly elected by the people, and the supreme leader, named by the Assembly of Experts.
The composition of Rouhani’s Cabinet, a mixture of technocrats and personalities with intelligence and security backgrounds, lends further weight to a cautiously optimistic approach.
Rouhani faces a number of urgent demands from the people of Iran and from the outside world, which regards Iran as an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
Iranians look to him to end internal divisions and foster national reconciliation. That would require much tact, as the rival camps have learned to think the worst of each other. Because it could only encourage radicalism, a divided Iran in which no one is certain of the rules of the game is bad news both for Iranians and for Iran’s neighbors.
Rouhani would also need to reduce tension between the Islamic Republic the outside world, starting with its neighbors. The fact that few of Iran’s 15 neighbors attended Rouhani’s inauguration at the highest level indicates the Islamic Republic’s isolation within its geopolitical habitat.
The good news is that Rouhani has already started to change the violence-ridden tone of Tehran’s foreign policy. The bad news is that his conciliatory remarks have been countered with aggressive statements by the supreme leader.
Iran’s isolation is bad, not only for Iranians but also for the region and beyond. Iran is an important country and a great nation with a long history of contribution to world civilization. Its contribution could be a major factor in creating a new architecture of peace and stability in the Middle East.
For Iran to play a constructive role, it should abandon some of the anachronistic ambitions of a revolution that has become a relic of history. That would mean ending intervention in the affairs of other nations in the name of an ideology that is on the defensive even in Iran itself. It would also mean greater transparency regarding a nuclear project that is ridden with dangerous ambiguities.
In private, Rouhani describes the tenure of his predecessor as the “lost years.” His task is to save Iran from more lost years.