With the recent emergence of cleric Hassan Rouhani following the presidential elections in Iran, much has been made about the prospects for change in the country. To analyse the future of reform and Rouhani's role as a "moderate," it is worth refreshing our memories about how the political system works in the theocracy.
Unlike France or the USA, where the president has the final say in key matters, in Iran this role is reserved for an unelected mullah, namely the "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.
According to article 110 of the constitution, the leader can dismiss the president and appoint or remove chiefs of the revolutionary guards and the army, the chief justice, and head of radio and television, among others. On top of that, he has the power to issue a "state decree" which overrides all decisions made by any person or institution in the country. It's no wonder the supposedly reformist President Khatami once described his role as no more than the "logistics man" at the end of his term. Decisions on sensitive issues such as the war in Syria or the nuclear program are entirely in the domain of the supreme leader.
Elections in Iran are not a challenge between the governing party and the opposition. They are at best a shuffle within the ruling clique. The real opposition is not even allowed to live freely, never mind running for office. Even senior officials who were not fully in line with the supreme leader, such as Rafsanjani, were eliminated before the elections by the Guardian Council. Women were also denied the ability to run, excluding half of the society from candidacy.
In addition to the fact that the eight handpicked candidates were advisers, aides, or representatives of Khamenei, this election was held in circumstances of absolute repression, including the denial of access to internet, a ban on media, and the mobilization of Revolutionary Guards and security agents. More than a million police and security forces were used to control people and suppress dissent.
A quick look at Rouhani's background could also help to clarify his intentions. He has been part of the establishment for three decades. He held the position of secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and was appointed by Khamenei as a member of the powerful Expediency Council. He was until this month, Khamenei's representative in the Supreme National Security Council. He was also chief nuclear negotiator with European Troika where he later proudly admitted that he successfully bought time to advance nuclear technology while the EU leaders were busy in negotiations with him. Rouhani's approval by the Guardian Council, while Rafsanjani was disqualified, is yet another sign of his adherence to the supreme leader.
But couldn't Rouhani's sudden emergence on the political scene be a cautious indication that the supreme leader is finally moving towards the idea of reform and moderation? If this was the case, then who better than Rafsanjani, with a more pragmatic outlook and political weight, to pursue this course? Quite the contrary — the elimination of Rafsanjani is the clearest signal that Khamenei is fully determined to maintain his hard-line course in pursuing nuclear armament.
Some may ask why Khamenei did not "engineer" the elections to bring in someone from his own faction like Saeed Jalili. It could be that the recent internal divisions have left him in such a weakened state that he did not dare such a move, mainly to prevent another uprising similar to the one in 2009 after the sham presidential electionsthat reelected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A rocket attack the day after the elections, on Iranian opposition members in Camp Liberty in Iraq, was a strong hint of what the regime fears most. "Several hours before announcing the election result, Khamenei tried to conceal his defeat by attacking Camp Liberty and murdering the combatants of freedom in a bid to warn the Iranian people who were poised to stage uprisings," said Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, addressing a crowd of more than 100,000 at the annual convention of the resistance on June 22 in Paris.
Rouhani's role in this equation is now mainly to buy time for Tehran's nuclear goals, something which he has successfully done in the past. But contrary to previous rounds, time is not unlimited for resolving the nuclear issue. At some point the West will have to choose either to accept a nuclear armed Iran, or take the course of confrontation.
Unlike his predecessors, Rouhani is now faced with three major issues that must be resolved within the coming months. The first is the nuclear issue, second the war in Syria, and third is the toll of sanctions on Iran's devastated economy. The regime is facing a dire situation with regards to the impact of sanctions on its economy, as well as the downturn in the cost of oil, and widespread unemployment among the youth. There are currently an estimated 5 million unemployed youths within Iran. With the recent graduation and the start of summer break these numbers will continue to increase.
If Rouhani's intent is to pursue meaningful reform, there are bright-line indicators by which to judge his policies. Taking steps towards improving basic human rights, freedom of speech, freeing all political prisoners, and halting public executions could be a start. Stopping the enrichment of uranium and opening the nuclear sites for inspection would also demonstrate good will towards the international community.
However, as the entire survival of the regime is based on the notion of the absolute rule of clergy, any deviation from this principle will inevitably lead to breaking the atmosphere of fear and terror and result in its fall. It is for this very reason that Khamenei has resisted any form of political maneuvering, let alone serious political reform. Internal reform is unlikely to happen regardless of who holds the presidency. A free Iran will be one with no mullahs in power.