Hassan Rouhani: Why Iran's New President Won't Change His Country's Foreign Relations

Hassan Rouhani, who is described as "moderate, pragmatic and conservative," has won the Iranian presidency. Seventy-two percent of the 50 million Iranians eligible to vote, turned out in the election. Rouhani won 50.7%, or 18.6 million votes, and his victory was greeted with celebrations in Tehran and optimism in foreign capitals. The British Foreign Office urged Mr Rouhani to "set Iran on a different course for the future addressing international concerns about Iran’'s nuclear programme ... and improving the political and human rights situation for the people of Iran." The White House has indicated that it is prepared to engage Iran "directly’" over its nuclear program. 

The powers of the new president are hard to understand for the outside world. Foreign policy, defense, security, and nuclear decisions are under the control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has been Iran’s supreme leader since Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989. Iran's military reports directly to him, bypassing the president altogether. However, Khamenei does not enjoy unlimited powers. His actions are checked and balanced by the Assembly of Experts, who have the power to impeach him. The assembly, is made-up of 86 clerics, who are democratically elected by the people every eight years. The next assembly election is in 2014. 

Mr Rouhani is in charge of all other areas, including the economy. His ability to formulate foreign policy depends heavily on his public image. Public diplomacy is largely his responsibility, and the more positive his image is abroad, the more willing outside countries are to work with him. The main difficulty for any new Iranian president is how to deal with the United States, as the consensus in Iranian foreign policy circles is that the United States cannot be trusted. Fears about U.S. intentions towards Iran are well-founded. The United States' closest ally in the region, Israel, makes constant threats of war against Iran, and on top of this, 125,000 U.S. troops surround Iran. The U.S. has bombed and invaded two of Iran’s neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Iran has attempted to reach out to the U.S. twice, but both times, the U.S. failed to return the gesture of good will. The best chance for detente was under President George H.W. Bush and Iranian President Rafsanjani. The U.S. approached Iran to help secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, and the U.S. government hinted at unfreezing Iranian financial assets in the United States. “Good Will Begets Good Will,” as President Bush told the Iranians. The Iranians secured the release of the American hostages, but the United States failed to live up to its end of the bargain, which angered the Iranian leadership. 

The next chance for rapprochement occurred under President Khatami, and the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought the two countries close together, as Iran co-operated in America’s War on Terror.  This co-operation was short-lived because President Bush declared Iran to be in the "Axis of Evil."  The Iranian leadership has not forgotten these incidents, and it has led to an all-time low in trust in the United States. It is within these foreign policy constraints that Rouhani finds himself. Bottom line — don’t expect Iran to change its attitude towards the United States, unless the United States is willing to change its attitude towards Iran.