Rouhani’s Beautiful Victory: What Comes Next?

by Francois Nicoullaud

Hassan Rouhani has undoubtedly won a brilliant victory in the presidential election, with a tally exceeding 60% of the valid votes cast in its first and only round (the 57% figure usually cited by the media included blank and invalid ballots). The result has exceeded the predictions of most experts. It provides Rouhani with a strengthened mandate to implement the campaign pledges that he already made during his first election in 2013 and that he reiterated during the latest campaign: more freedom for Iranian society and a more positive interaction with the rest of the world. These mutually reinforcing policies should lead to greater prosperity.

But this popular support won’t be enough to persuade the main pillars of the Islamic Republic—the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the judiciary—to acquiesce in such a program. For the conservative core of the regime, Rouhani has fulfilled his historical task by concluding the Vienna nuclear agreement of 2015 and would be well advised to confine himself henceforth to the management of current affairs.

Will the incumbent president be able to escape the curse that struck his two predecessors during their second terms? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though supported initially by the most powerful elements of the regime, ended up at war with all his patrons and unable to take the slightest initiative. Before him, Mohammad Khatami had seen the ultra-conservative Guardian Council rescind all the progressive legislation passed by a friendly parliament. More recently, Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the last presidential election, as another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been in 2013. Since 2015, all Iranian media have been banned from even mentioning Khatami. In Iran, being a president of the Republic is indeed a risky proposition.

Of course, Rouhani could bet on the prompt demise of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, aged 77 and seriously ill, as an opportunity to reshuffle the cards of Iranian political life. But he would put himself entirely into the hands of providence. And Khamenei is almost certainly preparing the ground for two or three potential successors whose views are unlikely to differ significantly from his. Even if this succession were to come on short notice, there is no guarantee that Rouhani’s task would be made easier.

The Fights to Come

If Rouhani does not want to reach the end of his term of office discredited and rejected by his electorate, he will have to engage in some tough fights and be prepared to break some of the Islamic Republic’s most sacred crockery. Rouhani knows that internal and external openings tend to interact and that he will have to act simultaneously on both fronts. Fortunately, some steps forward, highly symbolic but also carrying tangible effects, are within his reach, whatever the formidable obstacles looming before him.

On the domestic front, for instance, the Law Commission of the Iranian parliament has already pronounced itself in favor of a draft amendment to the criminal code abolishing the death penalty for drug offenders. The adoption of such a bill by the parliament, if confirmed by the Guardian Council, would reduce the number of executions in Iran by about 90%, from at least several hundreds per year to a few dozen. Even if that would still be too many, it would mark the end of the disastrous image of Iran as the world’s first or second country for the number of executions per capita.

On the international front, two dramatic gestures would allow Iran to surprise even its most hostile adversaries and position itself as a regional trailblazer in the field of nuclear and ballistic non-proliferation.

Movement on Missiles

The first one would be to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). By ratifying a text that it already signed in 1996, Iran would incur no new obligations, as it has already renounced the development or acquisition of a nuclear weapon when it acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But it would set an example for its neighbors, and even beyond, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and even the United States and China have yet to join the CTBT. At the turn of the century, Iran already authorized the CTBT Organization to install on its territory automated seismic stations designed to detect nuclear explosions. If this arrangement were reactivated, it would send an additional positive signal to the international community.

The second gesture would be for Iran to join the Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation adopted in The Hague in 2002. Iranian experts participated at the first preparatory meeting but dropped out later. In essence, this code requires its signatories to provide an annual declaration on the outline of their ballistic missile and space launch policies, disclose the number and characteristics of ballistic and space vehicles launched in the previous year, and provide advance notice of launches and test flights. In this age of worldwide satellite observation, such transparency measures would in no way jeopardize Iran’s ballistic defense decision-making autonomy. It could also exert a deterrent effect probably more effective than the usual bombastic declarations coming from Tehran on the subject.

The powerful IRGC manages the Iranian ballistic missile program, but Rouhani should be able to overcome its possible institutional resistance, much as he did in 2003 when dealing with the nuclear file. In that episode, he demonstrated that he had enough energy and political will to secure from the IRGC the cessation of some controversial nuclear activities. If he could convince the IRGC of Iran’s interest to adopt the Hague Code of Conduct , Tehran would position itself as the vanguard of its region, given that the kingdoms of the Arabic peninsula, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel have yet to join this agreement.

The Role of Others

These possible moves by Iran should, of course, be encouraged and also reciprocated in one way or another. At the very least, the present US administration should perceive them as a signal of good will. For its part, Israel could find in such moves an indication that the “Iranian threat” could become less “existential” than before, even if Netanyahu might find it difficult to publicly admit. Saudi Arabia, which has asked repeatedly for “deeds, not words,” would thus receive an appropriate answer. And of course, the P5+1 countries that concluded the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—would bear a special collective responsibility to respond.

The last provision of the agreement’s preamble states that Iran and its six interlocutors, plus the representative of the European Union, shall meet at the ministerial level every two years, or earlier if needed. Two ministerial meetings have already taken place in New York, in September of 2015 and 2016 on the sidelines of the session of the UN General Assembly. Can we nurture the hope to see the next, and possibly fruitful, meeting in September this year?

Photo: Hassan Rouhani registering as a presidential candidate in 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

François Nicoullaud

François Nicoullaud's diplomatic career (1964 to 2005) brought him to New York, Chile, Berlin, Bombay, and finally to Budapest and Tehran as French ambassador. In the French Foreign Ministry he was in charge of cultural development as well as non-proliferation issues. He has also served in the Ministry of Interior as a diplomatic advisor and in the Ministry of Defense as First Assistant to the Minister. Since 2005, he has been active as a political analyst in international affairs, concentrating on Iran and the Middle East. He has also authored a book based on his experience entitled, “The Turban and the Rose” (Ramsey, Paris, 2006).



  1. President Rouhani’s re-election is a strong indication that Iran will continue to move forward supported by a reformist minded electorate made up of younger, better educated women and men who are now a generation removed from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
    However, the current position of the Trump Administration is to ignore the reality of President Rouhani’s re-election and to support Sunni alliances in the Region with Saudi Arabia being the keystone holding such an unstable alliance in place. This by itself will isolate Iran from having the ability to grow it’s economy by partnering with the West and will empower Israel and others to define Iran as a sworn enemy and a pariah.
    As was the case during the Khatami presidency, when Iran was seeking support from Western governments, the US and it’s foreign policy failed to respond to a leader who was beginning to orchestrate the Dialogue of Civilization and was seeking American support to offset the impact of his administration’s deconstruction by Iranian “hardliners.” The US failed to respond, thus leading to the presidency of Ahmadinijad and 8 years of Iranian isolation.

  2. Thank you! Iran could certainly have a positive influence leading the way for “adversaries” to rethink their dangerous and belligerent attitudes an allowing us all to be safer.

  3. Thank you Ambassador Nicoullaud for describing Rouhani’s challenges over the next 4 years. However, in regards to the Iran’s current defensive missiles program and it’s further development, Iran will not end the program any time soon under any circumstances as long as it feels the bullys are in their neighborhood! Iran is in its legal rights to defend its citizens especially in light of the West, specifically the US, surrounding the Iranian lands and water with arms in the hands of bunch of lunatics such as Turkey, Israel, Saudis, Qataris, Talebans, ISIS and the Caucus countries!
    The West’s belligerent and bullying policies and actions making Iran more resolute and also belligerent in defending itself by any means including short and longe range missiles. In short the West’s foreign policy against Iran for the past 40 years has been a failure and it continues to be a failure today!

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