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Jun 15, 2013 | 16:46 GMT

Iran's Opportunities with Rouhani

Rouhani Wins Iranian Presidential Election
(BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

The election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as the next president of Iran will help maintain domestic stability amid the country's continued economic and political pressures. Following four years of fractious infighting between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's election helps safeguard against public unrest and presents the West with a presumably more conciliatory Iranian president. Nevertheless, despite his campaign rhetoric Rouhani will have to deal with the same realities of the office that his predecessor faced: upholding Iranian support for the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, continuing Iran's nuclear program and mitigating the challenges of a fluctuating domestic economy and rising sectarian opposition to Iranian influence in the region.

Rouhani, who was secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and top nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, appeals to many of the more moderate and reformist voters who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 election, as well as elements within the current political system. This view of Rouhani as a moderate sympathetic of the reform movement is common among his supporters despite his own background as a well-connected member of Iran's clerical elite. Characterized by their desire for a less-antagonistic relationship with the West, Iran's moderates and reformists also advocate for economic liberalization and growth and less direct involvement of the clerical and military forces, which are seen as corrupt, in day-to-day governance.

This pragmatism reflects the changing demographics of the Iranian population. A third of the electorate was born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and has little direct connection to the ideological positions of many of Iran's hardline revolutionary-era leaders. Their hardline positions have included resisting any concessions of Iranian positions to Western demands, resulting in decades of sanctions and impeded economic growth, despite the vast hydrocarbon and mineral wealth that buoys the position of Iran's military and clerical elite. Most important for Tehran, Rouhani's election win is unlikely to trigger the same sort of public unrest seen following the re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Rouhani's election also allows for the clerical establishment at the apex of the Iranian political system to come together after four years of a persistent contest for authority between the office of the Supreme Leader and the popularly elected president.

As Ahmadinejad sought to expand the powers of the presidency with strong populist support, the political and economic clout of military figures such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also grown, to the detriment of the clerical position. Worried about this decline in authority and prestige, many high-ranking clerical figures such as Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani supported Rouhani's well-funded and organized campaign. Rouhani should not be expected to fully bend to Khamenei's will, but with a mutual desire to see the current pro-clerical political system endure, we are unlikely to see the same openly defiant rhetoric and action from Rouhani that dominated Ahamdinejad's second term. Indeed, there will likely be attempts to slowly retool the current political balance in the clerics' favor to curb the rise of both the Revolutionary Guards and populist politics.

Despite neutralizing the threat of reformist unrest and creating an opportunity for a detente amongst Iran's clerics, Rouhani's administration will still face some daunting challenges. The Syrian conflict and its involvement of Shiite fighters from both Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraq has created tremendous risk for the Iranian sphere of influence developed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Iran's defensive arc of sectarian allies reaching to the Eastern Mediterranean is beginning to break, with the al Assad regime now controlling only pockets of its former territory and with Sunni nationalist and jihadist insurgents increasing their attacks across Iraq.

The violent Sunni reaction to Iran's increased regional presence coincides with recent rounds of Western sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports. While the sanctions have not succeeded in fully halting Iran's exports of crude oil, especially to large Asian consumers such as India and China, Rouhani will come to power at a time of great economic volatility and rising inflation. With rhetorical promises of change and economic reform leading to a surge in popularity during his campaign, Rouhani will be faced with growing expenditures related to socialist spending programs enacted during Ahmadinejad's tenure as well as rising support for the Syrian regime and likely Iraq's Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Iran's domestic and external pressures will test the West's perceptions of Rouhani as a more moderate and pragmatic president. This presentation of Rouhani in Western media reflects the challenges facing Iran's new president. He may well enter nuclear negotiations and a strategic dialogue with the West in order to gain sanctions relief or help curb the spread of Sunni nationalist and Salafist-jihadist insurgency in the region, but he cannot be expected to halt Iran's nuclear program at the behest of Western powers. Nor is he likely to discontinue backing Damascus or Baghdad, regional capitals whose support Tehran views as necessary to project a defensive posture against a rising Turkey and Sunni Arab states on the offensive. Ultimately, Rouhani's victory and the preceding electoral process reflect Iran's ongoing political evolution. Still very much aligned with the prerogatives of the Iranian state but slowly changing in accordance to shifting public sentiment, Iran's 11th presidential election is an example of why the regime will yet endure for many years.

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