Hassan Rouhani: Iran Has a New President But That Doesn't Mean Anything Will Change

On Sunday, Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as the seventh president of Iran. He is politically moderate and has promised to bring change to the struggling people of his country. The White House has extended an olive branch to the new president, suggesting that Rouhani’s election presents “an opportunity” for Iran to resolve concerns over its nuclear program.

However, the “hope and prudence” Rouhani has spoken of dissipates once you realize that much of the power lays with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council. As of now, the presidential replacement is a superficial alteration to an Iranian regime whose ideals remain unchanged.

Rouhani faces a range of issues, including rampant inflation, possible food shortages, and the imposed sanctions from the U.S. regarding Iran’s nuclear program. It is clear that Rouhani intends to take a different, more moderate approach than his predecessor Ahmadinejad, whose regime was controversial.

“People want change,” Rouhani said. "People want to live better, to have dignity as well as a stable life. They also want to recapture their deserving position among nations.”

Rouhani wants to restore a positive international image of the Iranian state and its intentions — especially the perception of its nuclear program. The position of Iran has been that the program is purely for energy production, and that the state does not intend to weaponize the material. Western states remain skeptical. 

During the inauguration ceremony, Rouhani’s language was softer, but his message was just as firm as before. “If you want the right response, don't speak with Iran in the language of sanctions, speak in the language of respect,” hinting at recent U.S. sanctions. “Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

portion of the Obama administration’s statement insinuated that the U.S. intends to continue to press Iran to end its nuclear program.

Rouhani was a prominent figure in Iran before his election. For 16 years, he served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, but resigned when Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, making it clear that he did not want to align himself with beliefs of his predecessor.

Domestically, Rouhani will face resistance from the hardliner-dominated parliament, but should have some success in enacting social reform. He has pledged to promote equality for women and has stated that economic reform is one the most important issues he will attempt to address over the next year.

However, much of Iran’s economic downfall has been caused by foreign sanctions, of which the new president will have little control over. Rouhani, an experienced military adviser, has been a close confidant and adviser of the Ayatollah. But ultimate determinations on foreign policy, military action, and the nuclear program lay directly with the Ayatollah, not with the president.

In order for Rouhani to stimulate economic growth, “Iran’s other leaders [must] find a solution for nuclear support,” said Moshen Renani to the New York Times, an economic professor at the University of Isfahan. The issue is that Rouhani will have little ability to change the course of these events.

For Iran, this stage of moderate reform brings a promising new age of social change but to expect anything else would be optimistic at best. Rouhani will undoubtedly soften the Westernized image of Iran, and increase the potential for negotiations, but the reality is that the president has very little power. Unless Rouhani can find a way to assert himself within the governmental structure of Iran, it does not seem that the core of Iran’s positions are likely to change in the near future.