The electoral debate and the victory of cleric and former chief nuclear negotiator Dr. Hassan Rouhani during the Iranian presidential elections on 15 June 2013 says a lot of things about this widely misunderstood country. The West, in its usual monochromatic view of Iran, celebrates the end of Ahmadinejad's mandate and welcomes the arrival in power of a moderate and reformist. Behind the cheering, there is the hope that Rouhani will lay the foundation stone for the evolution of Iran into a western-style democracy. Ignoring the idiosyncrasies of the Iranian regime, foreign audiences will most likely fail to notice the change that will happen within Iran's domestic politics and end up being disappointed by Iran's continued catering to its regional strategic agenda and ambitions.
First, there is the need to understand what these elections said about Iran''s political institutions. Any follower of the Iranian presidential debate noticed that the national economy was the main issue being voted on. Precisely, the new government will have to execute a strategic action plan that would allow the following:
— Reduce Iran's dependence on oil revenues.
— Reduce the far-too-important interference of the military in the economy and thereby reduce the level of corruption.
— Increase Iran's domestic industrial output and boost domestic demand.
Executing this economic agenda should soothe the numerous difficulties the Iranian population is facing, such as a strong economic recession, a 30% inflation rate and a soaring unemployment rate (14%). Last but not least, this action plan could help Iran better resist the Western sanctions against its oil sales.
Besides the importance of economics, these elections are compelling evidence of the strength of Iran's political dialogue and its relatively democratic institutions. Even though the electoral process is supervised by the ruling clerics, the country's state institutions starkly contrast with the dictatorships and repressions in the neighboring Arab monarchies and republics. Moreover, such easy transition of power at the presidential level after popular elections is rather unmatched in the rest of the Middle East. Of course, this does not mean that ruling clerics do not manipulate the electoral process. The state's violent reaction to the Green Movement following the 2009 presidential elections and the obstruction of a reformist agenda are clear evidence for hostility to public dissent. Yet, the transfer of power that occurred on June 15 proves that the clerics' politburo cannot ignore the political will of the majority.
This majority (50.7%) emanates from an electorate of about 46 million people, more than a third of which (roughly 18 millions) are less than 30 years old. Feeling more distant from the 1979 revolution or the destructive Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), this cohort voted the status quo out and expressed a strong political will for reform.
Nevertheless, the international community should not expect a more empowered president unchecked by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as Ahmadinejad attempted to do especially during his second mandate.
As a moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani will help maintain domestic stability against popular protests and unrest in spite of continuous economic sanctions and political pressures from the U.S. and the European Union. On the external level, Rouhani is expected to be more conciliatory than his predecessor. Yet, he will have to face the same realities than Ahmadinejad did; that of an internal power struggle with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Indeed, during his second mandate, Ahmadinejad was openly defiant to high-ranking clerics. Like several populist presidents, he tried to strengthen the president's power and curb the influence of the ruling clerics by expanding the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, a branch of Iran's military that has its own air force and navy. The fact that Rouhani is a reformist matters little when it comes to Iran's ambitions in the region, namely the support for embattled Syrian regime (or at least a power structure that would be favorable to Tehran), power projection across the Persian Gulf, and the nuclear program. These strategic ambitions will compete against the new president's internal agenda of mitigating economic fluctuations due to sanctions and mismanagement. This will most likely put Rouhani in a position where he will often find the supreme leader standing in his way.
As a matter of fact, he has already experienced some level of friction with ruling clerics when he was a top nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. Nicknamed the "Diplomat Sheikh" by the Iranian media, Rouhani was known for his forward-leaning negotiating style. It even led him to agree on a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment with the West as a token of goodwill and a measure of confidence building. Unfortunately, he received harsh criticism domestically for having given too much while the U.S. and the EU blamed him for being unable to turn his concession into a real deal on the nuclear program. Rouhani was allegedly forced to resign as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator a few days after Ahmadinejad assumed office in august 2005. One can, therefore, wonder whether Rouhani will once again stick his neck out for concessions from the U.S. and the EU.
The Iranian state is a complex political system that mixes a representative parliamentary system with a president elected via universal suffrage and a supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, who is not elected and has the ultimate authority. In spite of that, the U.S. and the west, finally have the opportunity to negotiate with a conciliatory and reformist president who is expected to adopt a more engaging stance that the populist and nationalistic Ahmadinejad. However, on a foreign policy level, the U.S. must work at strengthening the reformist camp in Iran by showing that Rouhani can get something from Washington, such as the possibility of lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions.
Ultimately, the Iranian interests and ambitions will not change. But there is now the possibility for the U.S. and the EU to sit at the negotiating table in a more engaging way. On a domestic level Rouhani, being a cleric backed by several high-ranking clerics such as Rafsanjani, will not abide totally to Khamenei's will but try to safeguard the clerical structure and mitigate the Revolutionary Guards and the populist camp. For such change to happen, he will definitely need some concessions from the international community on the nuclear dossier.