Iran’s Next President

by Dina Esfandiary

After a long night, the results came in on Saturday: Hassan Rowhani, former foreign minister, former nuclear negotiator and reformist by default will be the Islamic Republic of Iran’s next president. The outcome of this seemingly unfraudulent election has led to surprise and hope both inside and outside Iran. But how much is Iran’s next president willing to do, and perhaps more importantly, how much can he do?

Predicting the outcome of Iranian elections is a thankless exercise — after all, the last four presidential elections in Iran were surprises. But after months of crackdowns and statements that no dissent would be tolerated”, it seemed this election would come and go with no notable change other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being shooed out in favour of an appointed hardline conservative. Although the crackdown that followed Iran’s fraudulent 2009 election and Ahmadinejad’s turbulent presidency had damaged the system, it seemed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would not risk another four years of uncertainty for a little bit of legitimacy gained from freer elections. But, again, we were surprised.

Iranian authorities even kept polls open late to accomodate a surge of voters who had initially refrained form voting, feeling that their vote would be ignored. But it became apparent that the government was intent on repairing some of the damage done to its system by demonstrating it was capable of holding elections with a high turnout (80% according to the government) and “only minor issues that were fixed quickly”, as stated by the Guardian Council.

Iranians have made clear their desire for change. Some will paint this as a victory for the sanctions regime, while others will see it as Khamenei’s willingness to act leniently in the face of public pressure. But a problem remains: constitutionally, the Iranian president has little power — Khamenei is still the ultimate decision-maker, which suggests the big picture won’t change much.

The president is responsible for the state of the Iranian economy (which Ahmadinejad did little to improve) and the general mood and direction the country is taking. Depending on their relationship, Iran’s new president might be able to sway the Supreme Leader’s views on some subjects.

Rowhani has not revealed his plans for tackling Iran’s major economic problems like rampant inflation, unemployment and the drop in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial. But he has stated that he will begin to address economic problems first. During his campaign, he often criticised government policy on a range of issues, from the nuclear negotiations to the treatment of prisoners, indicating that he would try to tackle them. And during his first press conference as President-elect, to the great relief of many international watchers, Rowhani highlighted that he would make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent and help build mutual trust to end Iran’s international isolation.

But the pessimist in me remembers that Rowhani passed the Guardian Council’s screening. He is a cleric with a long tradition of loyalty to the Islamic Republic; he did not support the opposition in 2009 and supported the clampdown on student protests in the nineties. Some (even more pessimistic than I) believe his recent liberal tendencies were intended to woo the reformists and reinvigorate those who had lost confidence in the system.

And that’s just the first layer of suspicion. Willingness and ability are two separate things. Think Mohammad Khatami’s presidency — his hands were tied.

It is likely, that as many Western analysts are predicting, not much will change, especially in Iran’s foreign policy. The Islamic Republic has already invested far too heavily in Syria for example, and at no point did Rowhani indicate he would revisit this policy during his campaign. On the nuclear front, he focused on critiscizing the government’s handling of the negotiations, not the existence of the nuclear program.

Having said that, it would be foolish to dismiss the events of the past twenty-fours hours because substantial change, especially vis-a-vis the outside world, seems unlikely. Past presidents have been successful in influencing politics as well as the general mood and image of the country. Khatami was also able to loosen some of the restrictions on the daily lives of Iranians. Moreover, the Iranian population is tired of the current state of affairs; they want breathing space from international pressure to address domestic concerns. This recent victory, no matter how uncertain, has made space for some hope and cautious optimism.

Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate and foreign affairs and security analyst focusing on Iran, the Middle East and nuclear issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

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