Hassan Rouhani: We Can Expect a Toned-Down Foreign Policy From Iran's New President

Victim to years of political repression, economic mismanagement and coercive ideological adherence, the people of Iran finally took to the polls and chose a moderate candidate over the weekend. In a surprise upset, Iran’s battered reformist movement has triumphed. Voting hours that were extended to as late as 11 p.m. on Friday in some places to cater to the large number of Iranians who turned out (the current count indicates a very impressive 72% turnout rate) were soon followed by street celebrations. Hassan Rouhani is Iran’s president-elect with a 50.7% majority.

With a master's in philosophy from Glasgow Caledonian University topped off with a Ph.D in Law, the president-elect can speak fluent German, Russian, French, Arabic, and English. Rouhani campaigned on a platform to end Iran’s isolation from the West and improve the deplorable economic conditions the country finds itself in today (Earlier, I discussed how the economic conditions would impact the elections here). Backed by two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani finds himself fairly well-placed within the Iranian political scene.

So what can we expect from the new President as far as foreign policy matters are concerned?

As far as foreign policy goes, as I discussed in an earlier piece, key foreign policy and nuclear policy decisions are not made by the Iranian president, but are almost exclusively the domain of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani’s track record as well as his statements in the run-up to the election suggest a significantly different position compared to standard Khamenei policies with regard to relations with West and in-turn nuclear policies.

Being a moderate, Rouhani has openly stated that he aims to end Iran’s isolation in the global arena. Doing so would involve a more "give and take" and pragmatic attitude towards the west for which Rouhani is fitted. While he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Iran agreed for the first time to stop enriching uranium and allowed more scrutiny of the programme, avoiding the risk of being referred to the UN Security Council and economic sanctions. Rouhani is also expected to appoint moderate diplomats and negotiators to the government. His esteemed position within the local Iranian political scene might just allow him to bridge the gap or at the very least deescalate the tensions that exists between the pragmatists and the ideologues within the local Iranian political scene with regard to foreign policy.

However, since ultimately Khamenei maintains veto power on any foreign policy initiatives, Rouhani will have to tred extremely carefully. Any drastic overtures towards the West with regard to Iran’s foreign policy will not be appreciated by the Supreme Leader. Former President Ahmadinejad had his fair share of disputes and bickering with the supreme leader over domestic matters, and Rouhani (if he sticks to his policy of reconciliation with the West and whatever measures that reconciliation may require) is bound to find himself at odds with the ideologically driven elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and the supreme leader himself on foreign policy issues.

Although the elections have brought forward a moderate candidate, the Iranian political system and the way it functions means it is important for observers to manage their expectations as opposed to expecting sudden, drastic and quick-fix solutions to Iranian foreign policy issues.